Interview with Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez portrait
Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Marine Biologist, Wildlife Educator, TV Presenter, TEDx speaker, Podcast Host & Author from Sydney, Australia.

Tell me more about Fins United Initiative-how you got started, what you do, and how people can get involved-what are some ways people can help save sharks?

The organization was first established in 2013 in sunny Florida, and was dubbed as “Sarasota Fins.” Inspired by the lack of shark education and conservation integrated into school curriculum’s, I began creating the tools and products I believed will help inspire understanding of these beautiful creatures. As the program’s popularity grew, its educational outreach expanded and the need for a more encompassing name became clear: thus, The Fins United Initiative was born.

The Fins United Initiative is a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program aiming to unite fin lovers worldwide. Our mission is to provide easy-to-access information on all sharks and their relatives worldwide through partnerships with educational institutions and other programs.

We are looking for representatives worldwide – and you don’t have to have a background in marine biology, just a passion for sharks and their relatives – to volunteer their time and go to classrooms, clubs, events, etc and give a #SharkTalk! Contact us here.

How do other cultures perceive sharks (other than as scary or dangerous)?

It really varies on the relationship a culture has with the ocean. Some cultures see sharks as these scary monsters will others perceive them as shapers of the land that are to be respected. I’m hoping to publish more information about this in the near future.

How has your cultural background affected your career?

It has made me a strong advocate for not just diversity in science and science communication but also inclusion. Many people think those terms are interchangeable but they are not the same thing. While science and science communication has become more diverse in the past decade, they still are not inclusive. Science, in general, is a very expensive industry to get into, leaving many at a disadvantage. My career has been shaped by my mission of giving my platform to others to speak their truth and their science.

Tell me more about your books and/or podcast-what are they about and how can we find them?

Joining forces with Speak Up for The Blue podcast, the ConCiencia Azul podcast is COMPLETELY IN SPANISH and interviews Spanish-speaking marine scientists, conservationists, grad students, photographers, and more from around the world. We discuss their studies and some of the unique challenges they face (such as racism, poverty, government corruption, etc).

There are people out there who are doing incredible work that doesn’t get highlighted, which is unfortunate. In many cases, they overcame obstacles, including racism and sexism, poverty, cultural and family expectations, and lack of mathematics background, in order to work and excel in the fields that they love. We Latinos y Latinas have the talent, and we often just lack the opportunity. This is my way of providing that opportunity to shine a light on them.

As for the books, I can’t talk too much about them other than it features an Afro-Latinx family that dedicate their lives to wildlife conservation and education. The series pulls from my life experiences, especially with what the main character (a young female) goes through. More information will be available in the next few months!

Interview with Shark Researcher Kristian Parton

Kristian Parton
Kristian Parton

This blog post is an interview with Kristian Parton, from the University of Exeter who is studying the effects of plastic pollution on sharks. He’s @KjParton on Twitter

What are some of the threats to sharks today?

KP- Blimey, where do I begin. It’s probably safe to say sharks (and rays) are some of the most threatened species in the worlds’ oceans. They have a variety of different threats, the most notable of which are without doubt overfishing and bycatch – these two practices are responsible for the removal of the greatest number of sharks from the seas. Then we move onto problems such as shark finning for traditional medicines, climate change, ocean acidification and plastic pollution!

Why should we save sharks?

KP- Well, not only are they absolutely awesome, they’re actually really important for the health and well-being of marine ecosystems. Sharks are top predators in the marine food web and consequently if you remove them this can have knock on impacts all the way down. I think it’s also vitally important to save threatened species for future generations. I remember the first time I saw a shark in the wild, it’s an experience I’ll never forget and I want the people who come after us to be able to experience that too.

How did you get started researching the impact of plastic pollution on sharks?

KP-Initially I was an undergraduate at the University of Exeter in the UK studying zoology, but took all the marine modules I possibly could. I knew I wanted to move straight into research after I graduated and have loved sharks since I was a young boy – so it was a no-brainer for me. It’s difficult to avoid the topic of plastic pollution at the moment, particularly in regards to turtles, seals and dolphins, but I read into a little bit more about how it might be impacting sharks and rays. It turns out the scientific literature is fairly scarce on the issue, so I dived in head first looking to expand our knowledge on how sharks and rays are really impacted by plastics – most notably via entanglement and ingestion.

Why did you found the Shark and Ray Entanglement Network?

KP-We founded ShaREN after our first publication a few weeks ago because we realised the issue of shark and ray entanglement in marine debris was severely underreported. In our research paper, we used Twitter reports to help document entanglement cases for sharks and rays and realised that it was occurring at higher levels on Twitter than it was in the scientific literature. We realised that the best way to try and collect more data on the topic was to create a citizen science platform where people around the world could submit their sightings of entangled sharks and rays. ShaREN is growing quickly and we’ve already had over 30 reports of entanglement since its creation a few weeks ago, but are always on the look out for more reports! If you do spot any entanglement incidents for sharks and rays, you can find the report form here: Shark and Ray Entanglement Network

Who’s your favorite Star Wars character(s)? (Both the interviewer and interviewee are big Star Wars Fans! Are you too? My favorites are the droids, R2D2 and BB-8)

KP-Hahah – that’s a tough question! I grew up around the prequels so I have a soft spot for them. I’d probably initially say Anakin, but he ends up going a bit mad (obviously) so I’d lean towards Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan – what a legend! I can’t wait for the new TV series based around him.

Interview With Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias, Whale Shark Researcher

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias and a Whale Shark
Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias and a Whale Shark

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias is a whale shark researcher based out of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), Mexico. She is the director of Whale Shark Mexico (Tiburon Ballena Mexico). She started the whale shark research program in 2003 (but has been studying them since 2001). The goals of Whale Shark Mexico are research, sustainable management and environmental education.

I recently went on an expedition and met Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias. This is a paraphrased interview with her:

Cherilyn Jose (interviewer): Where did you get your doctorate degree from and what was your thesis?

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias: I got my doctoral degree from the University of La Paz. My thesis was on the population genetics of the Gulf of California whale sharks. I found that the whale sharks return to the same area year after year. We re-sighted the whale sharks using photo identification.

CJ: How did you become interested in whale sharks? What was your first encounter with whale sharks like?

DRM: I saw dolphins and rays growing up. During my first close encounter with a whale shark, I found them to be beautiful and charismatic. I was curious about them and wanted to know more.

CJ: How much time do you spend in the field?

DRM: I spend 50% field/50% lab and administrative work. Approximately four times a month I see whale sharks in the field, and I have other researchers that go out three to four times a week.

CJ: Why should we save the whale sharks?

DRM: We should save whale sharks for the ethics of it–life will continue without us and we have to do something (before that happens). Saving whale shark habitat saves other species such as manta rays, mobula rays, and whales—it helps the ocean in general.

CJ: What are some threats to whale sharks?

DRM: Microplastics accumulate in whale sharks, not just in the adults but in the juveniles too. The same goes for heavy metals (and other pollutants). To help I use biodegradable pesticides to fumigate.

CJ: What are some future objectives of Whale Shark Mexico?

DRM: I will collaborate with other researchers in places such as Latin America. I will train locals to help sight and track whale sharks.

Note: Deni and her assistant, Maritza Cruz Castillo, are attempting to ultrasound one of the pregnant female whale sharks that frequent the Gulf of California. Stay tuned for updates!

I will also have posts on the 10 day expedition I took recently to the Gulf of California, with Panterra Expeditions and the Shark Research Institute, when I had a whale shark named after me ☺!

Book Preview of “If Sharks Disappeared” and Interview with Author Lily Williams

Book: "If Sharks Disappeared" by Lily Williams
Book: “If Sharks Disappeared” by Lily Williams

I was excited to come across this four minute long animated documentary, FINconceivable, about what happens if sharks disappear from the oceans. It is by Lily Williams and I would like to share it with you. link to FINconceivable I love her artwork and I even bought a her print of a whale shark! Lily’s online shop

I also had Lily answer a few questions, and I am thrilled to announce that her book, “If Sharks Disappear,” (Roaring Brook Press) will be in bookstores on May 23, 2017! (link to order)

1.Tell me how you came up with the idea of FINconceivable.

I came up with the idea for FINconceivable after posting my “What Happens When Sharks Disappear?” infographics online. I realized people wanted more information beyond the 3 infographics, so I decided to make FINconceivable my thesis film.

2. How long did it take to make?

It took a school year to make. I created FINconceivable as my 4th year thesis film at California College of the Arts.

3.Sharks are often portrayed as dangerous and an animal we should be fearful of. Why do you love sharks?

I love sharks because they are evolution perfected: older than dinosaurs and have lived through major extinction events. I always root for the underdog though, and with all the over fishing, shark finning, and trophy hunting, sharks are the sort of the underdog right now. They are indeed fierce apex predators that we should respect, but we also need to protect them. Without sharks, we won’t have an ocean to love.

4. Congratulations on the upcoming publication of “If Sharks Disappeared”on May 16, 2017. I am a writer that is trying to get traditionally published-can you give my readers a sneak peek on your journey to publication?

Thank you! My editor from Roaring Brook Press came across my “What Happens When Sharks Disappear?” infographics online and emailed me asking if I would write a book. After that phone call, I found an agent. A lot of things really fell into place seemingly easily… but, from that first phone call to publishing date, 4 years passed and a lot of hard work, research, and dedication went into making that final product. I am really excited for If Sharks Disappeared to be published!

Interview-Tim White & Shark Finning

Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station
Tim White building his housing

On April 18, 2015 I attended MARINE’s (Monterey Area Research Institutions’ Network for Education) Ocean Colloquium. There I heard Tim White of Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University speak about shark finning in a remote Pacific island. This interview was conducted by e-mail:

1. Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be at Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University.

After graduating from UCLA with a degree in biology, I was lucky to become involved in a few different marine experiences. I spent one autumn interning as a research diver within the National Park Service , and that following winter I worked as a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea. After a few months on crab boats it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t stay at that gig forever. Very cool learning experience, but it was time to search out other opportunities. We would stay out at sea for a few weeks, and then have spend a busy 24 hours in port offloading crab before heading back out to sea. During one of those offloads in Dutch Harbor, I searched through online conservation job boards, found a posting for a research technician position through Stanford/Hopkins Marine Station, and it worked out!

2. What is shark finning?
Shark finning is a harmful fishing practice that is driven by the demand for shark fin soup. Sharks are captured, their fins are cut off, and the carcasses are often dumped back into the ocean. The fins end up being used in shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in some cultures. In the fishery that I ended up studying the fishermen would actually keep the carcass, but the motivation to hunt sharks still stemmed from the fact that shark fins can be incredibly valuable. The arbitrary and extreme value of shark fins has senselessly put them at great risk – much like the plight of rhinoceroses and their horns.

3. How did you become interested in shark finning?
My overarching motivation is to study the ways that humans impact the ocean, so that we can mitigate and minimize impacts as needed. My involvement with shark finning began once I was hired at Stanford, but I’ve been interested in marine conservation and fisheries ecology for years so the topic has always been loosely on my mind.

4. Where did you study shark finning? Briefly describe your exciting journey getting there.
We studied shark finning in the country of Kiribati, which is an island nation that spans thousands of miles along the equatorial Pacific. I spent three months on an island that is located 1000 miles south of Hawaii. Getting to this remote location was challenging but necessary; one objective was to study shark finning in a region with minimal external/industrial fisheries, and the island of Teraina certainly fit the bill. I flew into an island called Christmas Island and was lucky enough to join a sailing cargo ship that was passing through the region. That fantastic ship dropped me on the island of Teraina and said goodbye. I was certainly happy to see their sails along the horizon three months later – I hadn’t seen another ship since they dropped me off!

5. How did you communicate with the natives?
This project was made possible by some really meaningful partnerships between some Stanford researchers and the communities of Kiribati. My advisors have been working in the region for nearly a decade. In Kiribati, they primarily speak a language called Gilbertese and their English proficiency varies by island. On the particular island I stayed on the prevalence of English was very limited. I began learning Gilbertese on the sail over to the island, so I still had lots to learn! After a few weeks of charades and lots of translation help from a few English-speaking friends, I became competent in the day-to-day essentials like fishing terms, foods, pleasantries. Being 100% immersed in the language certainly helped – I spent nearly every day aboard Kiribati fishing boats that exclusively spoke Gilbertese, so it was a sink or swim scenario.

Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station
Tim White measuring a shark

6. What were the main lessons you learned there?
We tried to take a broad, interdisciplinary look at shark finning. While I was there I collected data on the motivations of shark finning, the species involved in the trade, the impacts on shark populations, and the benefits to local fishermen. It was no surprise for us to learn that shark finning appears to be having really drastic impacts on local shark populations, though this was an important trend to measure. Sometimes folks assume that these tiny, remote islands are in relatively good shape, but this showed that even traditional technology (canoes/single hooks) could have really devastating impacts on shark species in a short time frame.

7. How do you think we can solve shark finning, especially as consumers?
As consumers we need to be sure to absolutely avoid unsustainable shark products. Conservationists have approached this problem from a number of ways. From the conversations I’ve had, it seems like one of the most effective strategies to reduce shark finning is to reduce consumer demand. Conservation groups have launched awareness campaigns in regions of high shark fin consumption, such as Hong Kong. It appears that the general public demand for shark fins is decreasing as people become more aware of the damage that the practice can cause.