Five Questions with Irene Kingma

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.

Expedition leaders Irene Kingma (left) and Dr. Paddy Walker (right) decked out in the official Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 gear.

I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.  I also interviewed several of the expedition participants on their views on sharks and shark conservation. Yesterday I posted my interview with Tadzio Bervoets. Today, I’m posting my interview with expedition lead Irene Kingma.

I first met Irene in 2014 when she invited me to give a keynote speech at the European Elasmobranch Association and have kept in touch with her through the years, mostly through Twitter.  Irene has been working in shark conservation for 15 years, both in Europe and the Caribbean.  She runs the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, which she founded together with Dr. Paddy Walker in 2010.

From 2015 to 2018 she worked as the Netherlands project lead in the Save our Sharks project of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance. This project aimed to improve all aspects of shark protection in the Dutch Caribbean through legislation, education, management, and science.  The project has ended but the Save our Sharks brand is still used for shark science and conservation work in the islands. 

Irene and Dr. James Thorburn prepare the European Space Agency tiger shark satellite tags for deployment.

I sat down with Irene and asked her five questions:

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Irene: I am the expedition leader.  I’m in charge of making sure everyone knows where they have to be and what they need to do. I do this together with Dr. Walker, who took on the lead role after I left the expedition a few days before the official end. Paddy and I founded the Dutch Elasmobranch Society together in 2010, a science-based NGO dedicated to the management and protection of elasmobranchs in the Dutch Kingdom.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Irene: My main job is helping policy makers to take the right decision on shark and fisheries management. For example, here in the Dutch Caribbean the Dutch Elasmobranch Society is the main adviser to the Dutch government on shark management and the measures needed to make the Yarari Shark Sanctuary a success.  Together with local partners we wrote the proposals to get several sharks and ray species listed on the SPAW protocol, the only cross border legal protection instrument for the Caribbean region.

The expedition crew works up and tags a tiger shark.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Irene: My background is in ecology, so when I think of heathy oceans that should include all parts of the ecosystem. Sharks are a really good indicator of ecosystem wellbeing; to be able to sustain healthy, diverse shark and ray populations all elements of the system need be to in good shape. We need to protect everything from the corals and to whale sharks.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

Irene:   I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to management. Putting a species on a list like CITES, CMS, SPAW is an important first step. But you also need to have sensible implementation on the ground linked to effective control and enforcement. Plus, to ensure you get buy in by the people who are affected or have to carry out the protective work you need to communicate on what you want to achieve and why throughout the chain. And lastly all needs to be grounded in sound science to ensure what you do actually makes a difference in the water and for sharks. My mantra is we need to get the science we need to deliver the policy we want.  

Bucky: What advice would you give to young scientists interested in a conservation careers?

Irene: Dream big! Here I am, a girl from Amsterdam who started out as a malacologist (snail specialist) leading an expedition to one of the most interesting places in the world to start up research projects which will help us protect sharks.  Somebody pinch me! There’s no clear path that led me here, the only clear thread I see is that I tend not to take the safe option when it comes to career choices and I never gave up. 

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Small Shark Tagging Day

We’re all smiles 5 minutes into the first day on the water.

I am in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.  Today was our first day out on the water and our objective was to catch, measure, and tag small sharks on the Saba Bank.

It’s a girl.

We caught three Caribbean reef sharks and a silky shark – the first time I’ve ever seen a silky shark (check that one off the list).  Each shark was worked up by the scientists, with data collected to serve their respective research areas.  When each shark was brought to the boat, the first observation was for sex, which we determined from the presence or absence of claspers.  And then measurements were taken for total length, fork length, caudal length, and girth.  We also took a fin clip, a muscle sample, and a blood sample.  Each shark was handled for only a few minutes, and then released back into the water.  Every shark today quickly swam away.

Guido, Jergen, Ayumi, and Walter work up a small Caribbean reef shark on the deck of the boat, with the island of Saba looming in the background.

Our island hosts Ayumi and Walter from the Saba Conservation Foundation were eseential in making today a success.  Walter drove the boat all day and Ayumi served as our expert fisher, helping us with the gear to target the species we were after.

You came for the science, but I’m showing you my fishing pictures.

We also trolled for bonito to and from the Saba Bank.  We didn’t catch any, but I handlined this barracuda, and we also caught a beautiful green mahi mahi.

Stay tuned for a few more blogs where I introduce some of the researchers and conservation practitioners participating in the expedition. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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 trapped lobsters, but this is only anecdotal. Dr. Robert Nowicki of Mote Marine Lab has developed a camera system that can record the behavior 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 utilize the area and the connectivity between different Caribbean habitats. Guido Leurs from the University of Groningen is 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.

My research and I were the victims of a conservative media attack

Will whiteDr. Will White is an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  He uses a combination of lab experiments, field studies, and mathematical models to study fish behavior and population dynamics, in particular how fish populations respond to protection in no-take marine reserves.

My adventure with the news media began on a Friday morning in early October, when I received an unexpected email from Melanie Hunter, a senior editor at CNSNews.com. The terse email mentioned my recent grant on sex-changing fishes, and asked why this was “an effective use of taxpayer funds.” She gave me a deadline of 4 pm that day. Now, usually it’s great when reporters want to cover scientific research, but generally once someone starts asking about “taxpayer funds” it’s because they don’t think those funds are being used wisely. What ended up happening with CNS News (Federal Govt’ Spends $728K to Study Sex-changing Fish”) bore out my suspicions.

I should back up to explain that I do have a federal grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study sex-changing fish. For anyone who has ever applied for an NSF grant, the idea that they are just handing out taxpayer dollars willy-nilly is pretty laughable: the grant selection process is notoriously grueling.  For the division of NSF that funds research in marine biology, only 5-10% of proposals are funded.  Proposals are reviewed by multiple anonymous peer referees, and then a panel comprised of multiple experts in the field convenes to evaluate the proposals based on the peer reviews and identify the best ones for funding.  In fact this was my first successful NSF grant after about five previous proposals were declined.

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