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.
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!
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.
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.
On April 18, 2015 I attended MARINE’s (Monterey Area Research Institutions’ Network for Education) Ocean Colloquium. There, among many interesting speakers, I heard Hannah Rosen speak about her research on Humboldt Squid communication at Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University. I was fascinated and I later asked if I could interview her for my blog. The following interview was conducted by e-mail:
1. Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be at Hopkins Marine Station.
Hannah Rosen (HR) : I grew up in Pennsylvania, but when I was 11 I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my family. I thought it was pretty much the most amazing place I’d ever been in my life, but never imagined I would someday be working right next door. I went to college at Bucknell University and studied animal behavior. I became fascinated with cephalopods and how smart they are. So I decided to go to graduate school and do research on cephalopod behavior. That’s how I found Dr. Gilly at HMS and decided to do research on squid chromatophores and their use in Humboldt Squid.
2. How did you become interested in studying squid?
HR: I first became interested in octopus after reading about their incredible ability to learn and even play. However, when I did more reading I realized that while there was a lot of research done on octopus and cuttlefish, there almost none done on squid because of how difficult they are to study. I guess I sort of saw this as a challenge and that made me want to be the one to work on this research.
3. How do squid communicate?
HR: Squid communicate mostly through body patterns on their skin. Different species have different colors of the expandable pigments sacs called chromatophores, which they can use like pixels on a screen to create different patterns. They often use these patterns in concert with different body and arm positions, and with light reflecting cells in their skin called iridophores.
4. Why did you study Humboldt squid instead of other cephalopods or squids?
HR: I was interested in Humboldt squid partly because of the interesting dynamic they have within their schools. They are always found in groups, but we don’t know if these groups are static or if members come and go. There is some evidence they hunt together, but they are also very cannibalistic. All these complexities made me think they must have a way to communicate with each other to maintain whatever sort of order that seems to exist. They are also large enough to strap video cameras onto, which makes it a little easier to study them than some other squid.
5. How did you get camera footage of Humboldt squid displaying?
HR: We got that footage using National Geographic’s Crittercam, an animal-borne video package that we put on squid that were caught using a squid jig and hand line. The squid were able to swim freely with the camera, which automatically detached after a few hours and floated to the surface, where we were able to recover it and look at the footage.
6. What do you hope to learn (i.e. what your dissertation is about)?
HR: I’m hoping to learn something about how Humboldt squid use their chromatophores, both for communication and camouflage. I am also comparing some of the anatomy of the chromatophores in Humboldt squid to that in California market squid to see if some of the differences in how they use their chromatophores translate into physical differences as well.
7. Have you come across any interesting facts about squid during your studies?
HR: I have learned lots of interesting facts about squid! Some things I have learned that aren’t about my particular research is that squid have blue blood instead of red because they use copper instead of iron to transport oxygen. Also, the have three, one chambered hearts instead of one, many chambered heart.
The following is an excerpt from True to Me Too’s interview with National Geographic photojournalist, Brian Skerry. Brian discusses some of his iconic images in depth, as well as the changes he’s witnessed over the course of his career. The interview covers his desire to protect the oceans fragile ecosystems and provides examples of successful sustainable fish farms, the resilience of marine protected areas, and the urgent need to protect endangered species. Brian also provides a variety of career opportunities for people interested in working to protect our oceans.
True To Me Too is an educational based career website that highlights interesting people in unique fields who have turned their passion into a career. The site will also feature Dr. Barbosa from The Marine Mammal Center in California. Both interviews will provide readers with first hand accounts from people who are working towards building a better future for our oceans.
Brian Skerry: “I saw a lot of degradation, I saw far fewer fish in the places where I had seen many fish in the early days. I saw far fewer sharks, I saw dead habitats and ecosystems, corals that were dying, things that I didn’t think most people would know about. I felt a real sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to begin telling these stories as well.”