Sharks and other large predators are scarce on most coral reefs, but studies of their historical ecology provide qualitative evidence that predators were once numerous in these ecosystems. Quantifying density of sharks in the absence of humans (baseline) is, however, hindered by a paucity of pertinent time-series data. Recently researchers have used underwater visual surveys, primarily of limited spatial extent or nonstandard design, to infer negative associations between reef shark abundance and human populations. We analyzed data from 1607 towed-diver surveys (>1 ha transects surveyed by observers towed behind a boat) conducted at 46 reefs in the central-western Pacific Ocean, reefs that included some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. Estimates of shark density from towed-diver surveys were substantially lower (<10%) than published estimates from surveys along small transects (<0.02 ha), which is not consistent with inverted biomass pyramids (predator biomass greater than prey biomass) reported by other researchers for pristine reefs. We examined the relation between the density of reef sharks observed in towed-diver surveys and human population in models that accounted for the influence of oceanic primary productivity, sea surface temperature, reef area, and reef physical complexity. We used these models to estimate the density of sharks in the absence of humans. Densities of gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), and the group "all reef sharks" increased substantially as human population decreased and as primary productivity and minimum sea surface temperature (or reef area, which was highly correlated with temperature) increased. Simulated baseline densities of reef sharks under the absence of humans were 1.1-2.4/ha for the main Hawaiian Islands, 1.2-2.4/ha for inhabited islands of American Samoa, and 0.9-2.1/ha for inhabited islands in the Mariana Archipelago, which suggests that density of reef sharks has declined to 3-10% of baseline levels in these areas.
©2012 Society for Conservation Biology No claim to original US government works.