I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Marine Science and Technology Program at The University of Massachusetts Boston and a research technician at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in the New England Aquarium. My research involves working closely with other research institutions, fishing industries, and management to better understand how fisheries are impacting global shark, skate, and ray populations. The goal of my work is to provide much needed information on these fisheries-interactions that can be used to set regulations that will increase the survival of millions of animals released each and every year.
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Ryan taking a blood sample from an oceanic whitetip shark
1. What is your favorite shark and why?
My favorite shark is without question – the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus)! I have been working with this species for a while now as part of a long-standing research project out of Cat Island, The Bahamas that goes back more than decade. These sharks are incredible! However, they have unfortunately been overfished throughout most of the world oceans. These sharks have been fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution into apex predators that control most open-ocean ecosystems. Oceanic whitetips are larger sharks (growing upwards of 10 feet) with a stocky body, unique white tips on most fins, and massive pectoral fins that make them perfectly engineered for traveling long-distances. In diving with this shark they are both graceful and curiously bold, and unlike any other shark species I have swam with. To sum up this shark – they are awe-inspiring!
2. What is the one shark you would like to dive with and study?
It’s actually a relative of sharks that I’d most like to dive with – the manta rays! I was just in the field off the east coast of Florida (working on a project with blacknose sharks) and we came across several manta rays cruising at the surface. I was not only blown away by the sheer size and shape of these animals, but also their hidden athleticism that they would flaunt everyone once in a while as they launched into the air! But aside from pure fascination this is also an overfished species that has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and is need of continued research efforts to support and promote their conservation and recovery.
3. How did you get started with studying sharks?
I get asked this question a lot because growing up in upstate New York (hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean) it isn’t easy to connect the dots with how I ended up studying sharks! But it all goes back to my love for fishing on the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks when I was a kid. Tie this together with a curiosity for all things under the water, being glued to the television for Shark Week and Blue Planet, and trips to the New England Aquarium, and it all starts to make sense. This eventually brought me to the University of New England where I started to conduct research in the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab. This was my true start to studying sharks! And my first field experience was a two-week bottom longline cruise with NOAA Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico to survey shark populations.
Doing a scientific workup on a oceanic whitetip shark
4. Why do you think science/research is so important for shark conservation?
The most powerful tool in shark conservation is knowledge! Management relies on information from scientists to set regulations that will promote shark conservation. Information like population dynamics, life-history characteristics (e.g. lifespan, reproduction biology, and growth rates), movement and migration patterns, and the impacts of fisheries are all pieces of the conservation puzzle. However, it is alarming how little we actually know about many of our shark species! This is why continued research efforts to expand our knowledge will be critical to the future conservation of sharks.
5. What is the coolest/most interesting thing you’ve seen while studying sharks?
I could talk about this forever! But by far the coolest and most interesting “shark moments” of my career have actually been long after releasing sharks that have been tagged with electronic tags to track their movements. Having grown up fishing I was always curious what these animals were doing after being released, and now, equipped with the tools to answer that question, it is really interesting to see what goes on beneath the surface! I have seen everything from sharks swimming in “chill” relaxation patterns to recover after capture, to some species making extreme dives to depths of more than 3,000 feet, and even some unexpected behaviors like bottom-dwelling skates (relatives of sharks) swimming all the way to the surface for long periods of time. The fascinating part is that we still don’t understand why many of these animals are moving in these ways! I also just recently documented the movements of several sharks trying to escape predators and in some cases, becoming a meal in a shark-eat-shark world.
6. Can you tell us a little about your research? What does a typical day in the field look like?
The focus of my research is to better understand how capture-and-handling affects the health and survival of overfished shark species that are released. The unfortunate reality is that not all sharks will survive after being thrown back overboard because of physical injuries and elevated stress levels from being captured. And in most cases, we have no idea how many are dying and what fishing practices or conditions are the most harmful to their health. This is a huge conservation issue because without this information it is practically impossible for management to promote the survival of these sharks using regulations. This is where my research comes into play!
My days in the field typically involve working side-by-side with recreational and commercial fishers to find and catch sharks. This can take a lot of time! But when we finally catch a shark there are many tools in my toolbox that I can use to understand how capture-and-handling has impacted these sharks. I first like to use accelerometers to identify any shark behaviors during capture that may be harmful, and to figure out which fishing practices can be changed to reduce the risk of these behaviors. This is the same technology used in your smartphones to count how many steps you have taken! Then, I usually give the shark a simple health “check-up” by looking at its physical injuries, testing certain reflexes, or even drawing a small blood sample to determine stress levels! Lastly, there are several types of electronic tagging technologies I can use to track the movement of sharks after being released. The movement information from these tags will show whether or not the animal survived and if swimming behavior was impaired because of capture. Put all of these tools and technologies together and you have a start-to-finish “work-up” of a shark.
Ryan using a hand line (with an accelerometer on it ) to try and catch and tag an oceanic whitetip shark.
7. What is the most challenging thing about studying sharks?
The most challenging part of studying sharks is that at the end of the day they are wild and unpredictable animals that can be incredibly difficult to find and catch. Most people see our highlight reels of working with a shark boat-side and think that’s a typical day in the life of a shark scientist, but the reality is fishing is not called “catching” for a reason! It can take days to weeks or even months of fishing effort depending on the species of shark and all sorts of other factors. That being said, us scientists can’t complain about the view from our “offices” when we’re in the field searching for sharks!
8. What is one thing you wish everyone knew about sharks?
This is a tough question because the obvious go-to answer for most of us shark scientists is that sharks are not the indiscriminate killers and villains that popular culture has made them out to be! And yes, that’s very much true, but I think what gets lost in the mix is just how important sharks are to the overall health of the world’s oceans.
Most sharks are apex predators and responsible for what’s called – top-down control – of an ecosystem. This means their presence keeps populations of other fish under control and the whole ecosystem in balance. If you remove sharks then the fish populations they had been eating would increase in size. This may sound like a positive for these fish at first, but eventually these changes would lead to a collapse of the entire food web. If there are more of these fish, they are going to be eating more (smaller fish, invertebrates, plankton, etc.) and reducing populations down the food chain. If these lower food chain populations are completely removed, then the predator fish will be facing starvation and they too will be in trouble. It’s a trickle-down effect!
This is why we need to care about shark conservation because without healthy populations of sharks, marine ecosystems that are already facing climate change will now be facing another uphill battle!