Conservation

Shark life

An interview with David Shiffman

Sharks come in many shapes, sizes and colours. Some can walk on land, others are known to glow in the dark.

Some prey on seals and big fish, while others gorge on minuscule plankton. They can be found in the deepest parts of the ocean, in colourful coral reefs, in seagrass meadows, out in the open ocean and far up in rivers. Sharks are diverse and inhabit almost all marine ecosystems in the world. Despite this, not much is known about these charismatic predators, and they are still very much misunderstood. To change this very notion, the award-winning marine biologist and author David Shiffman has dedicated his life to the protection of sharks.

He is an interdisciplinary marine biologist and conservationist who studies sharks, while trying to find ways how to best protect them. Oceanographic spoke to the marine biologist about his love for sharks, social media’s role in shark protection, and much more.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): First of all, how has your fascination with sharks developed throughout your life?

David Shiffman (DS): I have loved sharks for as long as my family can remember. When I was only a toddler, my family would only see me with shark toys and shark t-shirts. Most children tend to live through a shark or a dinosaur phase. I just simply never grew out of mine!

OM: Do you have a favourite shark species?

DS: The sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus), which is called the brown shark in the UK. That is definitely my favourite shark. Despite their unassuming appearance as the most typical shark you can imagine, sandbar sharks have played an outsized role in both scientific understanding of the oceans and in public appreciation for sharks. They are some of the best-studied large vertebrate animals in the world, because there’s a major nursery area in the lower Chesapeake that’s been studied by the long-running VIMS shark survey. They were some of the first sharks to have long distance migrations studied, due to their frequent interactions with anglers and NOAA’s associated cooperative angler shark tag and release programme. A hardy species commonly held in captivity in aquariums around the world, the’ve been seen by more people than just about any other shark species, and have been critical in inspiring many future marine biologists.  Follow #BestShark on Twitter to learn more about them.

OM: What can the public do to support shark conservation?

DS: The single most effective thing that people can do to help the ocean, including but not limited to sharks, is to stop eating unsustainable seafood. Notice that I didn’t say that we all need to stop eating seafood entirely, as some have claimed. Sustainable seafood exists and is a great solution for folks like me who love to eat seafood but are wary of the environmental impacts of some fishing practices. There are tons of other things people can do, as well as some things that many people are doing that is not helping.

OM:  What do you consider the biggest threat to sharks today?

DS: The biggest threat to sharks, by far, is unsustainable overfishing, of which shark finning is a small and shrinking part of the total. Anyone who says the shark fin trade is the only threat to sharks is not someone who knows what they’re talking about.

OM:  Which approach to shark conservation is most useful, in your opinion?

DS: The most useful approach to shark conservation is one based on data and evidence and facts and reality, evaluating what are the greatest threats and what policy solutions most usefully resolve those threats. Sometimes the answer is complicated and nuanced and doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker or hashtag.

OM: Social media is flooded with people touching and redirecting sharks. What are your thoughts on this topic and this type of social media content?

DS: The people who grab, hug, kiss, and ride sharks are engaging in wildlife harassment. It is absolutely, unequivocally not science, not education, and not conservation. This does not help sharks at all and can harm sharks and be dangerous for humans. Don’t do this, and don’t support ‘influencers’ who do.

OM: Your new book is called Why Sharks Matter. What does it cover?

DS: Why Sharks Matter is the world’s first comprehensive guide to the science and policy behind saving threatened shark species that is designed for a general audience – not just the marine biologist. There are plenty of shark books out there, but there’s never been one like this before. If you’re someone who loves sharks and wants to learn more about why they’re in trouble without having to get a PhD to understand what you’re reading, this book is for you. And along the way, the book introduces readers to scientists, conservationists, and non-profits doing great work, busting myths throughout.

It is a guide to the science and law behind saving sharks, with an ecological argument for why we should. It is a popular science book – not a textbook – and it is the first book to ever comprehensively address these topics. Throughout I also weave in my own adventures in the field, introduce readers to scientists and conservationists they can support all over the world, and bust myths.

Sharing my own fascinating experiences working with sharks, I talk about why healthy shark populations are a must for supporting ocean ecosystems and the coastal economies that depend on them, why we’re in danger of losing many shark species forever, what scientists, conservationists, and readers can do to help save these iconic predators, as well as about why so much of what you’ve heard about sharks and how to save them is wrong.

OM: What’s the ultimate aim of the book?

DS: In my career as a conservation biologist and a public science educator, I’ve learned that there are lots of people who want to help sharks but don’t know what to do to help usefully, and experts who know what to do to help usefully but don’t know how to explain complex technical concepts of science and policy to general audiences. This book aims to bridge that gap.

OM: The book debunks many myths about sharks. What are some of the more common misconceptions around sharks?

DS: There are so, so many. The book’s subtitle calls sharks the world’s most misunderstood predator for a good reason! Some are harmless – no, bull sharks are absolutely not the only shark species that can enter freshwater. Some are harmful – no, shark fin soup is not the only threat to sharks and cannot be the sole focus of an evidence-based conservation campaign.

OM: Any other exciting projects or expeditions coming up for you in the near future?

DS: In addition to my research, I’m in the midst of a 30+ city book tour! I hope to see some of you at my talks.

 

If you want to learn more about sharks, marine biologist David Shiffman and more, be sure to grab a copy of his book here.

Images by Christine Shepard (SharkTagging.com) and Ocean Image Bank / Tom Vierus, Jason Washington, Hannes Klostermann, David P Robinson, Jason Washington and Kimberly Jeffries.

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