When did you first develop your passion for sharks?
To be honest, I’m not someone who always thought they were destined to study sharks. My interest in sharks first came about when I was 19. I was on a boat in Mexico, heading out to see the whale sharks that aggregate in the area during the summer. I was not feeling that great on the boat so in an attempt to make me feel better, I was thrown overboard and left in the water with the whale sharks. They were just so big and docile, it was an amazing experience.
Wow, we bet it was! What made you decide to study them?
After seeing the whale sharks in Mexico, I went back to Toronto and got involved with some conservation organizations working on shark projects. When I moved to NZ, I wanted to continue this work and conveniently, my timing coincided with the review of the National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA), the framework which oversees the conservation and management of sharks in NZ waters. I spent quite a bit of time involved with this project, which allowed me get to know the shark community in NZ, as well as realize there are lots of research opportunities in NZ shark science. Taking on my PhD has allowed me to shift from a conservation and management focus to more science and fisheries work, and I think that’s been a great opportunity to remain open-minded and work with a wide variety of stakeholders on shark projects.
What is your research focusing on?
My research focuses on several deep-sea sharks and chimaeras (shark relatives) found in New Zealand waters. These species are caught as bycatch, meaning they are unintentionally caught by fisheries. We know very little about these sharks so we have no idea what effect, if any, fishing pressures are having on their populations. A big chunk of my work looks at the biology of these animals, assessing characteristics such as length at maturity, fecundity (reproductive ability and rate), and diet. I also spend time analyzing scientific research trawl surveys, looking at species distributions and behavioural characteristics, such as aggregations and determining if populations are segregated (by size, sex, maturity stage). All of these aspects can help us better understand if these animals are biologically vulnerable to fishing pressures. I hope this work will then be put forth for both conservation purposes (IUCN status listings), as well as management efforts (sustainable fishing measurements, risk assessments).
That sounds great! It’s certainly important to fill in the gaps with respect to the lesser-known species of sharks. What are some of the challenges you have come upon during your research?
One common challenge I’ve had to deal with is the lack of specimens I have to work with. Some of the species I work on are quite uncommon to come across – we’re not sure if this is because these animals are naturally found in low numbers, if they live somewhere we’re not looking, or if they have already been affected by overfishing. On top of that, when I do get specimens, they are not always the ones I want or need for my study. It can be very hard to get a sample size of a species that represents the entire range of sizes, maturity stages, and include both males and females. Ideally, you want a good representative sample size to make good conclusions about the biology of a species. This is where working together with other shark scientists and the fishing community is very important. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great network of people across the country keeping an eye out for specimens for me.
It’s encouraging to know the community of shark scientists and fishers are collaborating on such important work to increase our knowledge. When you consider shark conservation initiatives in NZ, do you think that we are on the right track? If so, what are we doing right? If not, what can we do to improve shark conservation in NZ waters?
NZ has large diversity of shark species – 113 and counting! Some of these species are also endemic to NZ waters – as in, they’re found no where else in the world. So I think NZ has a responsibility to be a leader in shark conservation and management efforts. In recent years, we’ve seen NZ participate in management actions such as reviewing the NPOA and signing onto the international binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks, and NZ should continue to play a role in the global community. On a more local scale, I’ve found there is a great network of researchers and experts willing to support and share information and ideas, which is fantastic and very important for making any shark project successful. I think one thing to work on is identifying areas that are of particular importance to sharks (pupping grounds, nurseries) and investing in ways to reduce shark bycatch.
It sounds like the future of shark research has solid directions in which to move. How can we as individuals work to help protect sharks?
A simple but perhaps not obvious way to help sharks is to make smart choices about the type of seafood you eat. In many countries, NZ included, sharks are caught as significant bycatch. These animals are often dead by the time they reach the surface, and with no commercial value, are discarded. It’s a very wasteful practice. If you do eat seafood, you should know where it came from, how it’s caught, and what species it is (fish are often called by other names to sound more appealing to consumers). Support sustainable efforts and local markets. Forest and Bird has a free “Best Fish Guide” (currently being updated) which can help you make informed decisions about seafood selections in NZ.
My advice for those who want to get into shark research would be not to forget that the term “shark” can be applied to any of the cartilaginous fish, which also includes the “flat sharks” (skates and rays), and chimaeras. These species are generally understudied, some are heavily exploited, and many are also considered some of the most at risk shark species. There’s definitely a need for more research on these lesser known species.
Hopeful shark researchers, take note! Finally, do you have a favourite species of shark?
Easy – one of my study species, prickly dogfish! The prickly dogfish (Oxynotus bruniensis) is found around New Zealand and Australian waters, and is one of five rough sharks (from the family Oxynotidae) which are found around the world. It’s my favourite shark because it’s so unique looking! Prickly dogfish have a massive sail-like dorsal fin, big eyes that give it a dopey-looking appearance, and as its name suggests, super prickly skin! One other thing that makes this species so unique is its diet. While I still have some things to confirm, it looks like the prickly dogfish has a very specialized diet, feeding only on the eggs of other sharks and chimaeras!