Association of sharks with Las Gemelas Seamount and first evidence of connectivity with Cocos Island, Pacific of Costa Rica.
Introduction: Seamounts and oceanic islands are known as hotspots of pelagic biodiversity, which highly migratory species use as natural biological corridors. Although marine protected areas have been established in the Eastern Tropical Pacific with a goal to protect and manage region’s marine biodiversity, not all utilize or enforce a no-take policy, and none are capable of protecting highly mobile species once they move outside of the limit of these areas. Objective: We present the first evidence of shark connectivity between Cocos Island National Park (CINP) and Las Gemelas seamount located in the Seamounts Marine Management Area (SMMA), by a female scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini). Methods: Between May 2015 and May 2016 a scalloped hammerhead shark and a pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus) were tagged (V16, Vemco Ltd.) and monitored by an array of acoustic receivers installed at CINP and Las Gemelas. We analyzed the acoustic data descriptively and we calculated the residency index (IR). Results: S. lewini performed persistent movements between these two marine protected areas. All detections in Cocos Island occurred during the morning (7:00–12:00 h) and Roca Sucia was the most visited site. The shark shows a low residency (IR=0.02) and intermittent presence in the study area. We recorded the presence of A. pelagicus at Las Gemelas almost one year after it was tagged at the site. Conclusions: The persistent movements of S. lewini between these two pelagic marine protected areas, and the presence of a tagged A. pelagicus at Las Gemelas seamount, suggests that movements between oceanic islands in the region may be more complex than simple “back and forth” movements, with seamounts in between them acting as stepping stones, where they may also stay for periods of time. Our results emphasize the importance of granting greater protection to seamounts and creating connecting swimways to oceanic island hotspots for the conservation of pelagic and highly migratory species. Although the establishment of marine reserves around oceanic islands and seamounts have been proposed as an effective way to conserve and protect marine biodiversity in the high seas, their effectiveness is only partial. This study highlights the importance of studying the spatial dynamics of highly migratory species to help improve the design and efficiency of marine protected areas located in the high seas such as CINP and SMMA.