Studying Sharks in the Dutch Caribbean

On the ferry from St. Maarten to Saba with Dr. Paddy Walker of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society and Dr. James Thorburn, a shark researcher from St. Andrews University.

I’m in the Dutch Caribbean this week with a team of international researchers for an expedition to the Saba Bank to study sharks.  This endeavor has been pulled together under the leadership of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, the Saba Conservation Foundation, and the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten.  I’m only here for five days, but the entire research trip will span from July 15 to 25.

Those of you who know me, are probably thinking, “but wait, you’re not a shark scientist!”  That is correct.  I’ve joined this expedition as a research assistant, which means I’ve signed up to carry a lot of heavy things and sing Jimmy Buffet songs with my ukulele.  My main role will be helping with communications.  I hope to share with you what we’re doing this week on this blog, and you can also follow along on social media with the hashtag #SabaShark2019.

Our expedition is based on Saba, and we’ll travel to the Saba Bank each morning to conduct shark research.

We are going to be spending most of our time out on the Saba Bank, a large submerged atoll just off the coast of the beautiful island of Saba.  We’ll be within the borders of the Saba Bank National Park, which extends across 2,680 square kilometers of ocean, an area about the size of Rhode Island.  The region is high in biodiversity, and home to sea turtles, migrating whales, and over 200 species of fish.  Researchers also think it is incredibly important for Caribbean shark species.

The scientific projects carried out during this ten-day expedition will focus on a couple of different species, including tiger sharks (YES PLEASE!!), silky sharks (there are a lot of juveniles in this part of the Caribbean, a nursery perhaps???), nurse sharks, and Caribbean reef sharks. The overall goal of the research is to gain insight into the role that Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of the species that live here, knowledge that is essential to adequately protect sharks. Four projects that will be carried this week are:

This tiger shark was tagged on a previous research expedition. Photo Credit: Duncan Brake.

Tracking tiger sharks from space. During the expedition, tiger sharks will be provided with tags equipped with a completely new satellite technology developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The space organization has developed an advanced technology that allows the tags to communicate with satellites in space in an innovative way allowing the tags to last much longer and collect much more data than tags currently used.  Stay tuned for a blog on these tags.

Preventing bycatch of nurse sharks. The Dutch Elasmobranch Society and the Saba Conservation Foundation have been working together with local fishermen to reduce the by-catch of nurse sharks in lobster traps. One essential element to achieve this is insight into the behaviour of sharks in and around the traps. Fishermen report that juvenile nurse sharks break into lobster traps to eat the trap lobsters, but this is only anecdotal. Dr. Robert Nowicki of Mote Marine Lab has developed a camera system that can record the behaviour of sharks in and near the traps, and this will be deployed this week.

Connectivity between habitats of Caribbean sharks. Between 2015 and 2018, a number of silky sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and nurse sharks were equipped with acoustic tags to find out more about how these species utilise the area and the connectivity between different Caribbean habitats. Guido Leurs from the University of Groningen building upon this research by collecting samples from Caribbean reef and nurse sharks to analyse diet and age of the sharks. Combined with the knowledge from the tagging program, this will offer government managers more insight into the role the Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of these sharks.

Stress levels of sharks in captivity. Blood samples will be taken from all sharks caught to determine the level of stress hormones in their systems. Based on this, researchers, can gain insight into how much stress the animals experience when they are examined for the different experiments. This information can be used to make the catch and research process as efficient as possible so that the animals are not adversely affected by the procedures.

There are also a couple of smaller projects the organizers aren’t promoting — but I’ll see if I can share an update or two about them. We’ll be out on the boat all day, and then back on land at night and I’m going to try to post an update each night. If you just can’t wait for the daily update, follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Negotiating the future of the deep sea, a new National Marine Sanctuary in the heart of the Potomac, nom-nomming crabs, running subs, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: July 15, 2019.

Foghorn (A Call to Action!)

Once again, delegates from around the world will gather in Kingston, Jamaica to negotiate the future of the deep sea. It’s Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority. Watch, Live!

Need to catch upon the last 25 years of deep-sea mining, exploration, and policy? The Deep-sea Mining Observer has you covered! Read through archives and back-issues, here: Deep-sea Mining Observer.

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

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Worldwide SciComm Challenge: #SharkSafetySlogan

Can you remember how young you were when you were first taught stop, drop, and roll? How about turn around, don’t drown? Slogans are abridged stories that fulfill our human need to convey information quickly and memorably. Their uses range from social connection, cooperation, and informing cohorts of risk. Sayings like the above are effective because of these three main achievements:

  1. They are memorable.
  2. They incorporate knowledge with action.
  3. And by fearlessly acknowledging rare, potentially fatal, risks – they create a constructive dialogue.

Imagine a world without stop, drop and roll where children are simply taught that there is an incredibly rare risk that they could catch fire, and that’s it. While the statistic may be true, just providing the information would result in a classroom full of hysterical first-graders. A great slogan captured and presents the risk fearlessly.

Put another way, slogans are science communication wins. So let’s get together and apply this human craft of slogan creation to another incredibly rare risk: shark encounters! Your risk of encountering a shark is extremely low–a statistic that is repeated ad nauseam. But just like our classroom of traumatized first-graders, stats alone aren’t always enough. Enter the #SharkSafetySlogan challenge!

Join us on twitter at #SharkSafetySlogan to crowd-source a memorable slogan. Shark experts and organizations from across the globe will be sharing sharky information to help you on your scicomm quest. Anyone who visits a beach is encouraged to participate!

Remember, keep it memorable, brief, and incorporate shark smarts with actions. An example could be:

Seals? Seabirds?! See ya!

The above slogan is brief, memorable, and incorporates the knowledge that an abundance of seals and seabirds is a strong indication that sharks are present, and you’re better off not swimming juuuust yet.

Come join us at #SharkSafetySlogan and see if your slogan ends up with the most likes and retweets! I’ll be leading the charge at @ScienceRhapsody. See you on the interwebs!

Book review: “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field and Laboratory”

Editors: Jeffrey C. Carrier, Michael R. Heithaus, Colin A. Simpfendorfer. CRC Press, available here.

I can’t imagine a more useful introductory reference guide for new or prospective graduate students starting their career in marine biology than “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field And Laboratory”. This book is designed for people who have little to no familiarity with a research discipline but are about to start working in that discipline, a large and important audience that is often ignored by books and review papers geared towards people who are already experts. So many graduate students are told to learn a new research method by reading technical literature that assumes they already know this stuff, resulting in stress and frustration.

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New paper: feeding ecology of South Florida sharks

We have a new paper out today in the journal Aquatic Ecology! Read it here, open access copy here. This is the last paper from my Ph.D. dissertation, and coauthors include my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, Ph.D. committee member Dr. Mike Heithaus, and colleague Dr. Les Kaufman. It’s called “Intraspecific Differences in Relative Isotopic Niche Area and Overlap of Co-occurring Sharks,” which I think rolls right off the tongue and would make a pretty sweet band name. This research was crowdfunded by the SciFund challenge a few years ago, so thanks again for your support! I want to tell you a little bit about what we did and what we found!

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All the times gender bias has reared its ugly head

Maybe it’s because I’m actually intimidating, but I for the most part consider myself fairly lucky as a woman in science. I’ve been fortunate enough to escape the horror stories of exploitation and sexual harassment that fill many of my colleagues’ journals. Yet, the recent story about the lack of medium-sized spacesuits – and the social media chatter about lack of women’s field gear – hit a nerve. It made me question my perceived luck.

I also remembered reading other women’s long list of times gender bias reared its ugly head in a career perfectly devoid of major sexual misconduct. I bet I could write that, I thought to myself. I wonder how long the list would be. So here goes, starting with the most egregious:

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30 Earth Month Heroes

Earth Month Heroes Narrissa Spies, Edz Villagomez, Sylvia Earle, and Charlotte Vick.

Earth Day is April 22, which makes next month Earth Month.

I’d like to invite you to participate in a Twitter hashtag campaign for the entire month.  The purpose of this campaign is to bring some attention and praise to the people who are doing great conservation work.  I’m calling the campaign #30EarthMonthHeroes.

Participation is easy.  Starting on April 1, post a tweet about someone who you think is doing great work to protect the Earth or the Ocean, either someone you know or someone you would like to know. Say something nice, upload a photo, link to a story or a video, tag them, and use the hashtag #30EarthMonthHeroes. 

Each subsequent day, thread one additional tweet about someone you admire.  It’s important to thread your tweets, so that by the time you get to April 30, you will have one single long thread.  If you thread them properly, throughout the month, as readers find your tweets they will be able to easily scroll up and down to find the people that you’ve been tweeting about.  If this works the way I hope it will, even the people who find your tweets as late as April 30, will still be scrolling back to your tweets from April 1. 

If all goes according to plan, we reach new audiences on a large scale and greatly impact the conversation about conservation, while building a twitter following for ourselves, as well as the people who we call out as Earth Month Heroes. Plus it’s nice to hear from your colleagues when you are doing a good job.

It’s really that simple. 

This is meant to be voluntary and fun, and it’s a chance to say thanks to the people in our line of work who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place – so no pressure!

If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments section and I will try to answer them.

How do I thread my tweets?

Ask Twitter.

Does my Ocean Month Hero need to be on Twitter?

If you are picking 30 people that inspire you, chances are one or more are not going to be on Twitter.  Don’t let that stop you from recognizing them!  If you can’t tag them, you could try adding a link to their website or to something they wrote.

Does my Ocean Month Hero need to be alive today?

Again, you should recognize whoever you want.  I’ll be shocked if Rob Stewart and Ruth Gates don’t get a few mentions (I’m going to mention Rob, whose final film Sharkwater: Extinction comes out on Amazon Prime on April 22), and won’t be surprised if the likes of Henry David Thoreau or Rachel Carson pop up.

What if I need to miss a day?  Or a week?

That’s fine.  The idea is to post one Ocean Month Hero per day, but if you can’t post over the weekend, post three on Monday.  And if you only get to 14 over the course of the month, those 14 people will still be happy to be recognized by you.

With no Blue Book for program guidance, Congress will hold its first hearing on Defunding NOAA, today.

At 10:15 AM, the House Appropriations Committee will meet to discuss The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020, an aggressively uninspired document that fundamentally dismantles America’s premier ocean and climate research agency and will cause immeasurable destruction to out coastal communities and economies.

You can watch the hearing live, here: https://appropriations.house.gov/legislation/hearings/the-national-oceanic-and-atmospheric-administration-s-budget-request-for-fiscal

Curiously, Commerce has not released the Blue Book, a guiding document that outlines the specifics of how the new budget will impact each program within NOAA. To my knowledge, this is the first time these hearings have commenced without these guiding documents, making it impossible for the American people to understand what, exactly, is at stake if Secretary Ross pushes his anti-science and anti-ocean budget through.

We’ll be watching.

Fun Science FRIEDay – Life is Inevitable

Why does life exist? Its an age old question that has been debated for centuries with popular hypotheses crediting celestial interference, a primordial soup, or a colossal stroke of luck. However, a relatively recent and provocative hypothesis suggests luck has nothing to do with it, and that instead, life is an inevitable consequence of physics.

The author of the concept, Jeremy England – professor of biophysics at MIT, suggests, “the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

 

(Photo credit: creative-bioarray)

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Why I don’t bite everyone that stresses me out: The cost-benefit analysis of predators

There is controversy whenever a human creates a close interaction with a wild animal.  Those arguing in favour of the human’s behavior inevitably settle on the argument that if the animal didn’t like it, the animal would have bit them or exhibited some sudden reaction to the human.  People who propose this argument have a very limited understanding of animal behavior.

Real talk, I used to believe this totally incorrect argument, and I will never forget the day that changed my perspective forever.  I was a budding zoologist working on a remote island with a group of scientists that were ringing cormorants.  The cormorants squawked for awhile, but then got “used” to our presence and calmed down.  I was reassured that we weren’t causing them any distress as we worked nearby, otherwise I expected that they would have shown it by either continuing to squawk or simply fly away.  Then, I noticed a few dead cormorants near where we worked.  I thought that they must have died before we arrived.  However, the senior researcher explained that they had been alive moments before but most likely died due to the stress of our presence.  That was an extremely powerful lesson in my young career and it challenged what I thought I “understood” about human interactions with animals.  Keep in mind, I was known for being an animal whisperer of sorts in my youth (see below) and truly believed that my special calm and confident nature could be detected by animals, and that they would accept my presence more readily than those who didn’t have my nature.  That FernGully perspective is wrong and egocentric.  There are few scenarios where our presence isn’t horribly stressful and disruptive to wild animals.   

Squirrel demonstrating a cost/benefit analysis = the benefit of free food is higher than the stress my tie-dyed presence is causing.

Large predators are no exception.  They are just as vulnerable to our stress as cormorants and just as unlikely to express it externally, because the cost of those behaviors is expensive.  Predators have severe energetic constraints and are constantly calculating whether their actions are worth sacrificing energy for, this is a cost/benefit analysis.  We do similar analyses all the time.  For example, I have a Trader Joe’s that is ~30 minutes from my home.  The food there is delicious and less expensive than my local grocery store.  However, I don’t go to The Joe every time I am hungry.  Even though I would save money on discount blue cheese dip there, I would spend more money in fuel for my car – meaning the entire trip would cost me more in the long run.  The costs of this behavior is too high and not worth it.

White sharks are especially discerning since they can burn a lot of energy quickly and are unlikely to encounter large meals in the open ocean to refuel.  So they make conservative decisions that prioritize maintaining energy stores (especially during gestation when a large portion of their energy budget is developing shark embryos).  In the recent case of large white sharks scavenging from a sperm whale in Hawaii, there were several divers in the water creating close interactions with the sharks for social media purposes.  Controversy ensued and the idea that the white sharks must have “enjoyed” these interactions otherwise they would have swam away or bit the divers has been presented.  But it is not supported.  First, white sharks full of whale blubber are experiencing some pretty hardcore torpor.  Also, blubber is very positivity buoyant, meaning a stomach full of blubber is essentially the same as if we ate a ton of foam and then tried to swim about.  White sharks at whale carcasses are typically slow-moving with low aggression, even towards each other.  It’s not that whale blubber makes them “happy,” it’s that being aggressive and swimming fast when there are going to be many other white sharks around AND you’re going to have a stomach full of floaty blubber is energetically expensive and the costs of these behaviors are too high.

Figure 4 from Fallows, C., Gallagher, A. J., & Hammerschlag, N. (2013). White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) scavenging on whales and its potential role in further shaping the ecology of an apex predator. PLoS One8(4), e60797.

Does that mean diving with full-bellied white sharks is safe?  Absolutely not – for them or for you.  It doesn’t matter how well you think you “know” a predator – species or individual – they are still dangerous.  We all know the list of fatal tragedies that start off with well-known humans believing that they have enough experience to take big risks, and each of those fatalities ends with the animal suffering, too.  For the sharks, disrupting a rare feeding event has long-term implications.  The stress caused – whether they exhibit that stress externally or not – is burning their limited energy, forcing them to recalculate their future behaviours until (if?) they encounter the next windfall.  Also – although currently undocumented – it’s a common thought amongst shark researchers that mating could occur at large feeding events like whale carcasses since it’s provides male sharks an opportunity to take advantage of the large female’s torpor to attempt mating approaches (I personally believe the same is true at seal colonies).  Boats and divers disrupt these behaviours.

I don’t bite every person that causes me stress.  I don’t full-sprint away from every situation that causes me stress.  That doesn’t mean that I am not experiencing stress that impacts my behavior and health.  The same is true for every one of these close animal interactions created by humans.  It’s alarming to me when those humans say that they are somehow especially qualified, and that their experience alone creates these “safe” encounters.  It’s not.  You’re benefiting from the cost a large predator doesn’t want to incur by demonstrating its stress to you – but as we’ve unfortunately seen several times, when the scales are finally tipped, unnecessary tragedies do occur.