Deep sea sharks: Do they survive?

BrendanBrendan Talwar is a graduate student at the Florida State University Coastal & Marine Lab studying Ecology and Evolution. Hispast experiences in diverse marine ecosystems have led to his current research interests in deep sea fisheries management. His thesis work will take place in the Gulf of Mexico and Exuma Sound while working closely with collaborators at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and The Island School, where he will use this project to teach an Applied Research course. 

Imagine it is a crisp, sunny, warm spring day and you’re out on the flats hoping a trout rips your topwater minnow to pieces. Out of a deep pocket fringed by oyster bars, a fish erupts from the mirrored surface and engulfs your bait. You win the fight, measure and bag the yellow-mouthed speckled trout, and repeat.

An hour later, you snag an undersized mackerel near the gills and reel it in for a few photos before throwing it back under the assumption that it will survive, grow, and eventually reproduce. You keep fishing and hope for the best, but find yourself wondering if it truly survived until the end of the day. What if it didn’t? Well, you didn’t mean to catch the fish. You didn’t mean for it to experience a fight-or-flight response, for its blood pH to drop, or for its lactic acid to build up. You were targeting 15” trout, and catching the mackerel was an accident. If the fish didn’t survive, then your daily catch represents a greater impact on local fish populations than the simple number you took home for supper.

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The science of shark control (and what it means for the Western Australia cull)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProf Colin Simpfendorfer is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University. He has more than 25 years of experience in researching sharks, and has published extensively in the scientific literature on shark biology, ecology, fisheries and conservation. He is a graduate of James Cook University where he undertook both his undergraduate and postgraduate training. After completing his PhD he worked on shark fisheries at the Western Australian Fisheries Department before moving to Florida to work at the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. He returned to JCU in 2007 to lead the Fishing and Fisheries Research Unit, where he has helped build a research group focused on improving our understanding of sharks and how best to conserve and manage their populations.

Call it a shark cull, shark control or bather protection, for decades governments have been trying to reduce the risk of humans being killed by sharks – by killing sharks. New South Wales, Queensland, KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Hawaii, Dunedin (New Zealand), Hong Kong, Somalia (during the US military intervention) and now Western Australia have, or had, shark control programs to reduce the risk of human-shark interactions.

Western Australia’s new program has sparked huge controversy, with many calling for the government to stop and pursue alternatives.There have been a range of claims that there is no science to support shark control. Many of these have been based on the effects of removing large predatory sharks on ocean ecosystems or that there is no evidence that shark culls reduce the risk of attack.Both of these are valid scientific considerations and need to be taken into account. However, neither addresses whether there is some scientific basis to shark control programs.

So here I would like consider whether there is a scientific basis to shark control programs. To do this I’ll look first at the theory, and then if there is evidence to support it based on analysis of data from the programs in KwaZulu-Natal and Queensland.

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The 45 most influential female ecologists alive today according to twitter

melissaMelissa Giresi is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University interested in using genetic methods to assess population structure, connectivity and biodiversity of exploited marine fishes and invertebrates. For her dissertation, she is testing the null hypothesis that the dusky smoothhound shark, Mustelus canis, is a single genetically-panmictic population in U.S. waters and utilizing molecular and morphological markers to assess how many smoothhound species are present in the Gulf of Mexico.   She is also involved with projects to investigate population connectivity in fine tooth sharks, black nose sharks, cobia, and amberjack. 

Monica Turner, image courtesy University of Wisconsin

Monica Turner, image courtesy University of Wisconsin

On Thursday, I tweeted “Name the most influential female ecologist (alive today) that you can think of.”  After it was re-tweeted by several of my much more twitter-savvy colleagues and friends, I received an overwhelming number of responses. In retrospect, I should have created a hashtag to keep track of the responses.  Forty-five influential female ecologists were named in this search, some of whom responded to the question themselves, naming their colleagues (but never naming themselves).  The most influential female ecologists (alive today) according to the twitter-verse are listed in the table below in alphabetical order by last name.

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Look beyond Shark Week to find the ocean’s most fascinating life

Dr. Steve Palumbi studies the genetics, evolution, conservation, population biology and systematics of a diverse array of marine organisms. Along with Tony Palumbi he is the author of the forthcoming book The Extreme Life of the Sea. UnShark Week is a week long celebration of the ocean’s extremes

Dr. Palumbi, enjoying a day at the beach.

Dr. Palumbi, enjoying a day at the beach.

Since 1987, the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week pumps up the thrill of encountering a dangerous shark. Teeth, danger, lunging predation, more teeth: this is what the week is mostly about.  But most of the extreme species in the sea are not sharks. Sharks are not the biggest, the deepest, the fastest, even the deadliest.  This week is exactly midway between Shark Weeks, 26 weeks till the next one; 26 weeks since the last. And because there are so many other thrilling species in the sea, we declare this week as UnShark Week – and dedicate it to the truly extreme animals in the ocean.

The fastest fish in the sea is not a shark. Sailfish have the unofficial record at 60 mph, and well documented speed trails have clocked tuna and wahoo at nearly 50 mph. By contrast the most celebrated human swimmers manage 6-7 mph. Billfish like marlin and sailfish feed at such high speeds that their brains and eyes can not operate fast enough. So as an adaptation to speed, these fish have evolved heaters in the brains and eyes so they can form and process images fast enough to snap up prey in high velocity sorties.

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Book review: are dolphins really smart?

melMel Cosentino obtained her Degree in Environmental Biology at the Universidad de Málaga (Spain) and her MRes in Applied Marine and Fisheries Ecology at the University of Aberdeen (UK). She has been involved in cetacean research since 1998, starting as a volunteer for Fundación Orca Patagonia-Antártida in Argentina (her country of birth) working in educational campaigns against killer whale captivity. Since then she has participated in several research projects in Spain, Portugal and Norway.  Mel has conducted field work, both from land and at sea, focused on different cetacean species, including killer whales, Risso’s dolphins and Northern bottlenose whales. In addition, she participated in the Annual meeting of the IWC as part of the Luxembourgish delegation, both in 2011 and 2012.


“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatsoever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible” (Bertrand Russell)

gregg bookThis is how the book “Are dolphins really smart?” by Dr. Justin Gregg starts. It has been recently published and it is available in several countries, including the US and the UK. Moreover there have been a large number of newspaper and web stories based on the conclusions of the book, most along the lines of “dolphins are no smarter than chickens” “Flipper is a thug!” and “dolphins are dumb” This led to a rebuttal article published in Southern Fried Science when David Shiffman interviewed the author and some cetacean scientists about the media frenzy spawned by the book’s release. Studying animal cognition is no easy task, and Dr. Gregg has put together a great amount of information; however, I believe the reader will be confused and misled by some of the comments and statements made by the author, a scientist who holds a PhD and who claims to be analysing the evidence “as impartially as possible with a sincere desire to let objectivity take centre stage”.

It would be impossible to critique the thesis of the book point by point, so I have compiled the topics I consider to be more problematic.

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The ups and downs of 2013 shark conservation policy, and a forecast for the new year

Sonja Fordham President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja Fordham
President, Shark Advocates International

SAISonja Fordham founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010 based on her two decades of shark conservation experience at  Ocean Conservancy.  She is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society, has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management, and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays.  Her awards include the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.

It’s been another exciting year in shark and ray conservation policy!  Once again, there’s a lot to herald, quite a bit to regret, and much work yet to be done.  Here’s my take on the year’s high and low points as well as a preview of key opportunities in 2014.  This post obviously reflects my perspective, and is therefore focused on science-based limits on shark and ray fishing and trade.  While the work has sometimes been exhausting, and this review is quite long, the scope is by no means exhaustive.

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10 fish weirder than the fish in the 10 weirdest fish in the world list

KeartesSarah Keartes  is a science blogger studying marine biology and journalism at the University of Oregon. A self-proclaimed Attenborough wannabe, and all-around shark junkie, she is dedicated to exploring new tools to promote ocean outreach through science communication.

Second string. Almost famous. Runner up. We’ve all been there—bowed out gracefully and stuffed down the BAMF within. I’m talking the missed, the forgotten, the less-than-top dogs (or in this case, fish). Such was the fate of these ten water-dwellers, left looking up at the podium of last month’s “Top Ten Weirdest Fish in the World” list.

Just keep swimming my finned-friends, I’ve got you covered. They may not be the blobbiest, the toothiest, or the most menacing—but for these creatures, weird comes naturally. In their honor, it’s time for round two: the top ten weirder than the weirdest fish in the world list.

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On the clarity of animals: the art and science of clearing and staining

AdamDr. Adam Summers  is trained as an engineer and mathematician, he turned to biology to satisfy a deep need to interact with nature.  His research applies simple physics and engineering principles to animals to understand the evolution of complex behaviors like feeding, movement and reproduction.  The images shown here are the raw material that underlies his research.  He is a professor at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, author of more than 90 papers, and was the scientific consultant on Finding Nemo.  He is obsessed with fishes and has recently come to realize that the tools and aims of science, art and poetry are more congruent than he had supposed. All the cleared and stained fishes can be seen at (Editor’s note: Adam was also featured in Gizmodo this week)

In my work I apply simple Newtonian physics and a bit of engineering to problems of how animals do those amazing things.  The source of questions is the natural world and there is no better skill set in my business than that of the natural historian. A keen eye for what is going on around you, and a willingness to document it, is a powerful engine for generating great questions.  Proposing answers to those questions almost always involves understanding the shape of the underlying system.  So, the second most important set of tools I have are anatomical.  Key insights are found in a deep understanding of the skeletal system and its associated soft tissue.  A common tool in my lab is clearing and staining, which results in an entire specimen that has its mineralized tissue stained red and cartilage a deep blue.

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Fish out of water: the necropsy of the beached oarfish

antonella_pretiAntonella Preti, graduated with a degree in Biology specializing in Marine Ecology from the University of Turin, Italy. She is currently attending a long distance Ph.D. program through the School of Biological Sciences of Aberdeen, Scotland.  She has been working for 15 years on the feeding ecology of large pelagic species (sharks, swordfish and cetaceans) caught in the California drift gill net fisheries at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. She has co-authored numerous scientific publications and two books, Mako Sharks and Sharks of the Pacific Northwest.

When most people refer to a “once in a lifetime fish” they generally mean a big fish that they fought for a long time that will make an excellent trophy for their mantle or a story for their grandchildren.  When marine scientists talk about a “once in a lifetime fish,” we often mean a species that is so rarely seen that we feel lucky to have observed it, even after it has washed up on a beach somewhere.  This month we in Southern California have been lucky enough to have one such “once in a lifetime fish” appear twice in a span of a week, as two oarfish washed ashore local beaches.  The first, an 18-foot specimen was found on Catalina Island and the second, a 14-foot specimen (approximately 275 pounds), was found in Oceanside, CA.  I had the unique opportunity to assist in the necropsy of the second individual at Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) in La Jolla, CA.  This was an interesting and exciting opportunity to learn more about a species about which little is known as it rarely encountered.

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Conserving the Endangered African Wild Dogs of Zimbabwe

Rosemary GroomDr. Rosemary Groom  grew up in Zimbabwe and has spent the last 12 years working in wildlife conservation in East and southern Africa. She is a dedicated conservation biologist, with a strong belief in the importance of large scale multidisciplinary conservation programs. Rosemary has worked on various different projects, from reptiles to large African herbivores, but for the past five years she has been working on large carnivore conservation in Zimbabwe, for the small, home-grown, hands-on charity The African Wildlife Conservation Fund.  The endangered African wild dog is the focal species for the program, but Rosemary also runs the Gonarezhou Predator Project, focussing on African lions. Rosemary is a member of the IUCN canid specialist group and is currently acting as the southern African coordinator for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and Wild Dogs.  She has published several papers in peer reviewed scientific journals and currently holds a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Johannesburg.

African Wild Dogs. Photo courtesy Rosemary Groom

African Wild Dogs. Photo courtesy Rosemary Groom

African wild dogs are the most endangered large carnivore in southern Africa.  There may be as few as 660 packs left in the wild – that’s only 660 breeding females!  African wild dogs are beautiful, amiable and charismatic animals with very endearing pups – not the feral domestic dogs that some people believe them to be.

In fact, African wild dogs have their own evolutionary lineage and are more closely related to wolves than they are to domestic dogs.

But unfortunately they are highly endangered and their global population is declining…  Threats include habitat loss and fragmentation, wire snaring, disease, human persecution and even predation by lions.

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