Photography by Jeanne Canto
To celebrate our third consecutive year of partnership with the Shark Research & Conservation Program (SRC), we took a tour of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and caught up with SRC’s program director, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag. Since developing the program back in 2010, Dr. Hammerschlag, along with SRC’s passionate students and faculty, have turned to sharks to better understand how ocean ecosystems function, and the impact that modern changes like urbanization, pollution, rising temperatures, and overfishing can have on marine life.
From producing cutting edge science that encourages policy makers to include environmental welfare in their laws and regulations, to creating hands-on opportunities for school aged children to get excited about STEM education, the Shark Research & Conservation Program has put sharks on the map in both the science community and public sphere. Read on to “listen in” on our conversation with the person at the helm of it all, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag.
After completing your PhD at The University of Miami in 2009 and running the Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) Program for over 10 years, how have your personal motivations changed since you first started this work?
It’s actually really interesting because they’ve changed in several ways. We initially had more of a focus on answering the question of how to successfully integrate our research with outreach. How to best conduct science while involving the participation of citizen scientists and school children, so that they get hands-on experience. As the years progressed, we realized that the education side was really strong, and that shifted into a huge focus on making sure that we were also generating respected, reputable, and impactful science–that we were publishing papers, and generating research that could be used for policy. In the last few years, we have continued all of this while expanding in terms of our outreach, and asking how we can be more impactful in reaching communities that are marginalized, and how we can best support and serve underrepresented minority groups; people who are not well represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, particularly in marine science. Further, a lot of the science early on was learning about sharks more broadly, and now that we’re seeing that the planet is changing from urbanization and climate change, our research has taken on a strong focus in not just learning about these animals but also understanding how they are coping and responding to global change.
As much as you love studying sharks, we know you enjoy photographing them as well. How has your research been impacted by your underwater photography? Or vice versa?
I love diving and swimming with sharks and photographing them. Being in the water is what I do for fun. I would say, when you go diving, you learn more about sharks and it's an opportunity to come up with your own questions. Being underwater, seeing how they interact with one another, how they interact with you, and how they interact with the environment, spurs curiosity and fascination that can turn into real questions that you can then go and ask from a scientific point of view. Photography is also a great way to communicate science. Historically, science and scientific papers would end up in journals that only other scientists would read. But if you really want to have an impact, people need to be able to learn outside of academia. I want the public to learn about sharks, the environment, and why it’s important. Having really great photographs and imagery to accompany the research helps promote it and get it into the hands of people. I think being able to document the research through photography has made the work much more impactful.
What encounter are you most proud of getting on camera?
In 2016, we had a Shark Week episode called Tiger Beach that was shot in the Bahamas where we conducted and successfully documented the first ever ultrasound on a pregnant tiger shark. We could actually see baby tiger sharks in the mother’s uterus that we captured on camera. We learned that the area provided both a gestation ground for pregnant females and for females that weren’t pregnant but were looking for a place to escape from males who wanted to mate with them.
What does a typical day of work look like for you?
That’s a good question. Not every day is the same. I think a lot of people watch the documentaries and think that a typical day is out on the boat, getting wet, working with equipment, and interacting with sharks, but that isn’t a typical day. My work is about 90% behind a desk and 10% out on the ocean. That 10% is the super motivating part, but people have to realize that the time interacting with sharks has to come from somewhere, and that involves desk work. We need to get funding which requires a lot of time writing grant and research proposals. When we’re able to go out on the field and collect data, we then have to come back and explore and analyze it with different types of analytical software on the computer, followed by writing up our findings and publishing them so that they can reach the public.
I also spend a lot of time communicating and interacting with my graduate students. I try to be a role model to them, and advise and support them with their work. Often I’m on the phone, on Zoom, or in person talking to them about their projects. So, there really is no typical day but I would say that about 90% is certainly indoors and 10% is what you might see on TV.
In your 2012 Tedx Talk, you stated that the data at the time showed 73 million sharks being hunted and killed per year, due in large part to the shark finning industry. How has that number changed in the past decade? Are there other causes for the decline in shark populations?
I don’t know what the new numbers are, but in 2013, not long after that first paper came out, an average of 100 million sharks were being killed per year. But that’s not all for their fins. Sharks can be targeted for their fins and meat, as well as incidentally captured and killed. As for the ones that are targeted, there have been laws placed in the last decade that make finning in certain places in the world illegal. Finning is where the fins are removed at sea [for food], and the bodies are thrown back into the water. Fins are more profitable than meat, which means you could leave with a boat full of fins by doing this. Now there are more rules in place that require the bodies of the sharks to come back as well, which has driven the increase of the shark meat market.
Another thing that is on the rise is recreational angling for sharks, where people catch sharks for fun and sport. I actually support responsible catch and release fishing. I love sharks. I want to see sharks, and there are many other people that also love sharks that can’t go diving with them. The way they can interact is through catch and release fishing. I don’t catch sharks for fun, but I understand why some people would. The thing is, there are certain species that are resilient and can be good for catch and release, and there are others that are more fragile and won’t do well. Some of our research has been to understand the impacts of catch and release on shark health and their survival, and looking for ways that people can sport fish that are more responsible and done in a way that is going to ensure shark welfare.
Could you tell us more about the trickle-down effects that happen when sharks are removed from ecosystems?
This is a complex question. People often ask me what happens when sharks are overfished and I don’t think there is a simple answer. One thing may happen when certain species in certain areas under certain contexts are overfished, and another thing might happen under a different set of circumstances. What we do know is that sharks play important ecological roles. In areas where this has been studied, we’ve seen that sharks keep prey populations in check. They’re a bit like the police of the ocean. For example, without a predator, certain fish can over populate and dominate other fish. If there are too many of a particular species, sharks will eat them, keeping checks and balances on the food web and promoting diversity.
Sharks also help transfer nutrients. Studies have shown that sharks will hang out in coral reefs during the day, and they’ll go off shore at night to eat. During the day they’re resting and excreting which acts like fertilizer to the corals. Corals are often nutrient poor in nitrogen and phosphorus and sharks can help supplement that.
In places where large shark populations have been wiped out and studied, we’ve seen that there can be changes not only in quantity and diversity of species in the food web, but also in the physiology of the fish. Fish have evolved to have traits like bigger fins and eyes to detect a predator from further away, and escape faster using the tail’s propulsion. Without predation stress and pressure, we’ve seen their eyes and tails shrink.
Ultimately, it will depend on the situation and I don’t think there is one answer. The analogy I often give is that when oceans are in balance and functioning well they’re like a fancy watch. If you ask me what’s going to happen if you open up that watch and pull out a random spring, I don’t know, but it’s probably not going to work as well and I think that is the case in terms of sharks.
With almost 40% of the United States population residing in coastal communities, what human influenced environmental changes have we seen most recently that affect shark behavior? Could you share some of the scientific findings coming out of the research within the Urban Sharks program?
Historically, marine scientists have been trying to understand natural behavior examples. What is the natural history and behavior of sharks? People have been going to places with little human influence to study these things. I remember coming back from a trip and flying over Miami at night and seeing all of the light pollution and how built up the coast line was right up to the water. I thought to myself, “man, if you’re a shark you have to deal with this on a daily basis.” I started thinking about how the normal isn’t those pristine places, the normal is urbanization. Sharks are exposed to pressures from human coastal urbanization like light pollution at night, chemical pollution from sewage, and noise pollution from boats or construction on the ocean.
We have a project we call the Urban Shark Project which is aimed at understanding how urbanization, particularly the effects of noise, light, pollution, and toxins affect the behavior of sharks and their health. The project is in relatively early stages, but I’ve been surprised to see that sharks aren’t avoiding the most urban centers. I thought they wouldn’t spend any time near Miami because it’s so busy and polluted, but our research from tracking them is showing that they spend a lot of time near Miami off of the most urbanized areas where there is terrible water quality. Through studying their diet, we’ve found that some sharks in urban areas, like nurse sharks, have energy rich diets that are nutritionally poor. In some senses this is like fast food, where you’re getting a lot of calories but it’s low in nutrition. We catch sharks in urban areas vs. pristine areas and we’ve found that sharks in urban areas have lower percentages of essential fatty acids and omega 3s and 6s, telling us that their nutrition isn’t as good.
Have you seen any examples of public initiatives that have successfully reduced the impact of these changes? (E.g., Beach clean ups, Zero Waste movement, or celebrity endorsed organizations like Lonely Whale or Shark Week).
It’s hard to make a direct causal link, but poor water quality impacts shark health and any program that helps clean up pollutants can have a positive effect. Plastic pollution is certainly an issue for sharks. They can ingest plastic, they can get entangled in it, not to mention that plastic often absorbs toxins from the ocean that can move up the food chain to the sharks. One of the things we saw at the beginning of Covid-19–in those four months where everything stopped off the coast of Miami–was that water quality improved because there was less activity and less pollution coming from boats. We observed and received reports of more sightings of critically endangered species like the smalltooth sawfish, likely because the water quality increased. The sharks we were tracking in these areas also increased.
How can urban coastal cities like Miami create policies that protect ocean wildlife while rapidly growing in population?
Obviously, any way of preventing water pollution is going to have a big impact. I think that protecting local habitats that we know are important for key life history events, not only for sharks but also for species that sharks eat and the rest of the ecosystem, is also important. Many sharks give live birth in coastal areas, and baby sharks spend their first year of life using mangroves as a nursery habitat. They live in and among mangrove crop roots. Both adult and juvenile sharks feed on fish that also spend their first few years of life using mangrove and seagrass habitats as nursery grounds. These areas are found close to shore, and are some of the most heavily disturbed areas as a result of urbanization. One of the big issues in Miami and other coastal cities is clearing mangroves to put up sea walls, or clearing seagrass beds to place marinas. I think protecting or restoring these essential habitats and making sure that they’re available is key. Miami has done some habitat restoration. For example, over the last 20 years, mangroves and seagrass beds have been re-planted at Bill Baggs Park here on Key Biscayne. We’ve done some monitoring of the communities of fish and sharks at the park throughout this project. At the beginning, there were little fish and no sharks, and over time we've been seeing the sharks come back, and the diversity and size of the fish increasing.
Could you tell us a bit about some of the projects that the Shark Research and Conservation Program is conducting right now?
Something that is really important right now, and that we are working on from a science point of view, is trying to understand the impacts of climate variability and climate change on populations of sharks and the ecosystem responses. What are the effects of climate change on sharks? What are going to be their biological responses? Will it change their movements? Will it change their reproduction, physiology, or behavior? And are these changes going to be negative or positive? What we have already found through some of the sharks we’ve been tracking is a shift in when and where they go to certain places due to ocean warming. Their distribution and migration patterns have altered and unfortunately, this has put them at greater risk of interacting with commercial fishing because they’ve moved into areas where there is more fishing activity. The climate change aspect is a really important and active area of our current research.
What are you most excited about for the next generation of marine biologists?
What I’m most excited about is that even though it seems like there are a lot of threats facing the ocean and the planet in general, never before in the history of the earth, in my opinion, have there been so many people that care about the ocean and are committed to saving it. The fact that I’m having a conversation with Ruta Maya, a coffee company, who wants to learn about the ocean, wants to support us financially, and have a collaboration with us and tell people about it, is incredible to me. I would say 20 years ago, no coffee company would have invested profits into conserving the ocean. Understanding how our climate is impacted by the ocean and vice versa is critical to agriculture, and I think the understanding of corporate responsibility that Ruta Maya is playing an important role in right now gets me really excited. The success that I’ve described with you on projects that we’re working on is supported directly by public philanthropy and corporate collaborators, and the support that we get from Ruta Maya is absolutely critical. I hope to continue having that support. Knowing that there are people beyond environmentalists that are willing to invest in positive change and are helping create awareness for the ocean and creating solutions makes me feel positive about the future.