Can you describe the focus of your research and the species you work on?
I have conducted research on approximately 30 species of sharks, skates & rays. As far as the “charismatic” species, my work has focused on blue, mako, porbeagle, soupfin (school), bull, and sevengill cowsharks. Currently my research is focused on range-restricted sharks found only in southern Africa, including: spotted gully, pyjama, dark, brown, puffadder and leopard catsharks. Many of these species are Near Threatened or Endangered due to anthropogenic activities, climate change and coastal habitat degradation. The focal areas of my research have included: dietary analyses, stock assessment, age and growth, movement ecology, fisher impacts on survivability, and behavioural ecology. My current research interest includes understanding the role of apex predators (such as sharks) in maintaining the health and integrity marine ecosystems.
In your opinion, how can people help save sharks?
There are several actions people can undertake to help conserve sharks. These include:
Contribute to a shark research organization. Most of these groups lack funding to support their research and would gladly receive donations/contributions from people to help conduct their work. But make sure you research the organization prior to making a donation, in order to ensure your donations will be used the way you want.
Get involved with shark citizen science programmes. There are a growing number of programmes around the world which rely on data collected by the non-scientist citizen. Things you can do include collecting egg cases (mermaid’s purses) from the beach, record unique shark sightings and/or help deliver educational material to dispel myths about sharks (thereby helping protect them).
Eat sustainable seafood. Many people don’t realize that most of the world’s fisheries catch shark (as target or non-target species). In non-target fisheries, most sharks are discarded back into the water and may not survive the capture process. Also, avoid eating prawns altogether. Prawn trawl fisheries are well-known as the most destructive fisheries, and only about 1-2% of their catch is actually prawns. 98-99% of their catch includes sharks, turtles, marine mammals and other fishes. Many of these animals are endangered or near threatened. Prawn trawl fisheries, by their very nature, destroy sensitive habitats as these fisheries only occur in sub-tropical and tropical areas which are defined by coral reef ecosystems. If you eat seafood at all, ensure your fish is captured in sustainable fisheries with the least bycatch.
How did you get involved in shark research and what advice would you give those interested in studying them?
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in sharks. I studied Marine Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I obtained my Honours Degree studying the diet of blue sharks Prionace glauca. At the start of my university career I, like many other people, was interested in studying the behavior of large charismatic species such as great white sharks. However, when I got my first opportunity to do volunteer work (I volunteered for 3 summers before being taken on as a student!) with Dr. Steven Campana (former head of the Canadian Shark Research Lab), I discovered just how many amazing shark species are out there and how very little is known about the majority of them. This new knowledge inspired me to seek out interesting study opportunities abroad and, in 2003, I moved to South Africa to conduct my Master’s research on the stock assessment and fishery management of soupfin (school) sharks Galeorhinus galeus. Steve (Campana) inspired me to carry on with shark research, and I attribute much of what I have learned to his mentorship during my undergrad career.
For those people interested in studying sharks, I encourage them to get as much volunteer/internship experience as possible. Build a network of contacts and prove to them that you are passionate about – and dedicated to – your future career as a shark scientist and/or conservationist. It is not an easy road in many cases. Funding for shark research is limited, and many professors are inundated with requests from students who want to study “sexy” sharks. Set yourself apart from the rest, gain a lot of experience and don’t always focus on the big charismatic species. There are so many more species of shark (all of whom are charismatic in their own right!) out there who require advocates to conserve their populations. Keep in mind that you create your own opportunities and, with a good bit of luck, you can become a shark scientist. I was incredibly lucky: I started my own NGO (South African Shark Conservancy) and have built a fantastic team who are all completely dedicated to shark and ocean conservations.
Please provide links to any of your research you would like to showcase.
My organization has been very lucky to have received project funding from some wonderful organizations including the Save Our Seas Foundation, PADI Project Aware &, currently, the Earthwatch Institute. For more information on some of our projects, check out the following links:
FB: The South African Shark Conservancy
Live your own Shark Week with SASC & Earthwatch in 2016 (http://earthwatch.org/expeditions/discovering-sharks-in-south-africa)
Bull Shark Ecology Project: (http://saveourseas.com/project/zambezi-sharks-south-africa/)
RecFishSA Project: (http://saveourseas.com/project/sharks-on-the-line/)
This Project is Rubbish marine debris research (http://www.projectaware.org/blog/south-african-shark-conservancy/may-05-14/project-rubbish)