Who I am
I grew up in Canada in a relatively small city nowhere near the ocean. The land barrier, however, never hindered my interest in the marine environment. I still remember how excited I was when I saw my first ocean animal (a humpback whale) at the age of 12. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved to New Zealand and now I am never more than a walk away from the sea. Every single day, I look out the window and see the ocean – and never get tired of the view.
When I agreed to take on a PhD project about deep-water sharks, I had no idea what I was getting into. I could describe these sharks as, at first glance, all looking exactly the same: black, ugly and nothing like your typical shark. At the beginning of my thesis I went to sea in a research vessel for a month and learned two things: I was not born with sea legs, and the deep ocean is full of amazingly weird and stunning sharks. Their adaptations to the deep sea – their spines and bioluminescence, for instance – are fascinating to see at first hand. At the end of that trip I came back to land several kilograms lighter and obsessed with these deep-water sharks. I have had the pleasure of working on these animals ever since.
Where I work
New Zealand is that small collection of islands south-east of Australia that is often left off printed maps. It is also a global deep-water shark hotspot. Of the more than 112 species of sharks, rays and chimaeras found in New Zealand’s waters, about 80% are found at depth. Approximately 20% of the country’s cartilaginous fish are endemic to the region, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. New Zealand also has the fourth largest exclusive economic zone in the world, which supports large-scale industrial fisheries for commercially important fish such as hoki (one of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish species). Deep-water sharks, including the leafscale gulper shark <i>Centrophorus squamosus</i>, are a primary bycatch species in these fisheries but have little value and are discarded. While discarding catch is best for the sharks, we don’t know anything about what happens to them when they are released. By understanding more about how fishing interactions affect gulper sharks, we can find ways to mediate our impact on them and ensure that New Zealand can be a global refuge for threatened deep-water sharks.
What I do
My days tend to revolve around counting fish in various forms. Sometimes I may be out at sea counting fresh fish, sometimes I may be in a lab counting frozen or preserved fish, but more often than not you can find me at my desk counting fish in the form of zeros and ones. I personally enjoy the first option best; this is where I can get my hands dirty and have the opportunity to spend time with the weird and wonderful critters of the deep sea. Many of my projects involve studying and monitoring bycatch – fish that are unintentionally captured during fishing activities. In New Zealand, most sharks, particularly deep-water sharks, are considered bycatch. By learning more about these species, we can hopefully find ways to reduce the chances that they will be caught in future and thus minimise our impact on the marine environment.
This project will involve the cooperation and coordination of fishers and our fisheries observers, who provide us (the scientists) with invaluable data that are used in the management of fisheries. I anticipate that a lot of patience will be required as we search for sharks and wait for tagging data to arrive!