A New Chapter for ELMO
Today I would like to tell you a little about the recent changes within the ELMO Team and the exciting future that lies ahead. After five years of hard work and devotion to ELMO, it is time for me (Lisa) to take a step back and handover the management of day-to-day operations to another passionate shark scientist - Chantel.
The beginning of ELMO dates back to August 2015, during the finishing phase of my Master's thesis on the impacts of recreational fishing in Plettenberg Bay. For almost a year, I patrolled the beaches around Nature's Valley, Keurboomstrand and Plett from sunrise to sunset in the search for anglers and their daily catches. In all this time that I spent on this beautiful stretch of coastline, I encountered thousands of washed up shark and skate egg cases, but I could not find a comprehensive and reliable source for their identification nor a project that would be interested in recording these findings.
Along with egg cases, I also found countless shark carcasses - mostly endemic catshark species and guitarfish - scattered around popular fishing spots. When I asked the local fishermen, who I got to know well and developed a great relationship with, they explained that catsharks are considered a nuisance because they can't resist the bait at the end of the fishing line and keep coming back for it even after they have been caught and released multiple times. It is important to understand that most fishermen acknowledge that this is part of the angling experience and they take great care to release catsharks as safely as possible. Sadly, there are exceptions to any rule and there are a few, who discard accidentally caught catsharks to save their bait for "real" catches. Even those sharks, which are released, suffer from significant trauma and a high probability of post-release mortality.
It was immediately clear that recreational fishing exerts significant pressure on local catshark populations. With almost one million anglers (either recreational or subsistence) fishing along more than 2850km of South African coastline, it is beyond the scope of any traditional research project to collect long-term and wide-range data on the health of our catshark populations. And this is how ELMO (South African Elasmobranch Monitoring Project) was born - a national open database for Elasmobranch sightings (and their eggs as indirect distribution and abundance indicators), with a focus on endemic species. The first step was to create a comprehensive guide to South African shark and skate egg cases, that was going to be freely accessible to the public and easily understandable. I scoured through the depths of scientific literature and found a handful very useful papers, mostly published by accomplished shark scientist David Ebert, that formed the base of our egg case identification guide. The next step was to enable citizen scientists to submit their information through a website and to contribute to our growing database. And finally, I wanted to enable everyone to explore the database visually (as a map) - which was and still is a technological challenge (for those readers, who can help us implement a better, free solution - we would love to hear from you).
By October I also had a PhD project lined up, in which I was going to investigate the movement patterns and genetic diversity of Butterfly rays. Two weeks before my enrolment I got the news that a not-yet published study had already covered the genetic part of my PhD proposal, leaving me with no other choice than to leave South Africa (my visa had run out) and hope to return later. Of course I continued to manage ELMO in my free time - luckily as a citizen science project, ELMO didn't depend on on-site management. Shortly after, Chantel contacted me about wanting to get involved and she did a great job in spreading the word about ELMO around Cape Town, whilst pursuing her own PhD project on stingrays in the Seychelles.
In 2017, I received funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation for the Elmoblitz Project, to take ELMO to the next level by engaging SCUBA divers with very specific and scheduled embryo development surveys. I travelled back to South Africa and held workshops with several interested groups of SCUBA divers between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay, who were then sent off to conduct survey dives and monitor catshark egg cases over the course of one year. After an initial period of great motivation and data collection, submission rates dropped and I realised that the remote management of a citizen science project is easier said than done.
The wish to return to South Africa was still strong and I looked into many possibilities, but in the end it was time to face the reality of visa and scientific funding issues. At the beginning of 2019, my partner and I decided to relocate within Europe and I am now living on the Canarian Island La Palma, which reminds me of South Africa in many ways. Here, I am focussing on connecting people with the marine ecosystem through meaningful ocean experiences, like snorkelling and skin diving and of course, research (more about Oceanológico here). It was with a heavy heart, that I had to acknowledge the need for someone else to take on the day-to-day management of ELMO - a project that has undoubtedly become part of my life and identity. But ELMO was never just for me - it has always been a project for the greater good of citizen science and education and its strength lies in its long-term continuation.
Luckily it was at about the same time that a new chapter opened for Chantel - a familiar face from early ELMO times - which allows her to take on the management of ELMO from within South Africa. With her experience in shark science and her devotion to environmental education, I couldn't think of a better candidate to take ELMO into its next phase. Chantel has already published various blog and social media posts for ELMO and with easing lockdown restrictions, you will soon hear and see much more of her and ELMO. Please join me in officially welcoming Chantel as the new ELMO project manager!
Of course, I won't disappear from ELMO completely and will continue to be involved to some extent in the background. But since I will be retreating from the public site of ELMO for now, I would like to thank everyone who has supported ELMO and made it the successful project it is today. Please continue to submit your sightings to our database and don't forget to subscribe to our blog and social media channels, where Chantel will be posting many interesting stories about South Africa's sharks, rays and skates.
Thank you all and I hope to see some of you on La Palma one day.