I developed a keen interest in science, particularly in animals and their behaviour, as a young child growing up in Colombia. I wanted to study marine biology, but the political turmoil and economic instability of that country limited my opportunities to learn and get involved in research, since routes to the coast were blocked by the guerrillas and many areas were deemed unsafe to travel to. In 2000 I moved to the United States, where I was exposed to opportunities that reinforced my desire to be a scientist. One key experience was volunteering at my local aquarium, the Discovery Place Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. I spent many hours over the summers watching the exhibit tanks and was spurred on by the way I saw members of the public react negatively to sharks. This is where I ultimately decided I wanted to pursue shark research. Since then I laid the foundations for a career in marine research and conservation by getting involved in many studies whose subjects ranged from invertebrates to leatherback sea turtles and to artisanal fishermen, until finally I was given the opportunity to work with sharks for my PhD at Florida International University. All my interests and experiences have centred on behavioural ecology with the goal of specialising in fisheries management. I believe that an understanding of how predators and trophic cascades affect community structure and fish stocks is crucial for effective management and conservation efforts.
In addition to following my research interests, I have made it my goal to increase scientific research in countries like Colombia. A beautiful country with bountiful natural habitats, including Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, deep Amazonian rainforest and high Andean mountain peaks, Colombia also boasts both the highest number of species per unit area and the largest number of endemic species of any country in the world. With all this beauty surrounding me as a child, it’s not difficult to imagine why I was inspired to study biology. Yet privileged as it is to have so much magnificent flora and fauna, Colombia has also had a long history of political unrest, which has made it difficult to visit, research and manage many of our ecosystems.
The numerous setbacks notwithstanding, many efforts have been made in Colombia to understand and preserve its elasmobranch (shark and ray) populations, and various institutions in the region have collected general catch information. Most of the data are unreliable, however, since they are not collected consistently or at the species-specific level. Furthermore, most of the landings have been reported from the Pacific coast; less is known about the status of elasmobranch fisheries on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Population trends and conservation status are not sufficiently understood for many elasmobranch species in the Caribbean, and even less is known about the intensity and type of artisanal fisheries that exploit these species, or take them as by-catch. Artisanal fisheries account for more than 95% of fishers in the world, especially in the developing countries of the Americas, Africa and the Indo-Pacific region. In these countries, artisanal fisheries are of considerable social and economic importance to regional human populations. For my study, I will fill gaps in the data on elasmobranch density and diversity by conducting interview surveys with artisanal fishers. Filling these gaps will contribute to the proper management of species that are important to the health of Colombian coral reefs (the third largest barrier reef in the world) and to the economic viability of coastal fishing communities.
By enabling me to study the socio-economic aspects of fisheries and their potential effects on trophic cascades in a data-deficient region like the Caribbean, my course of research will allow me to pursue both my career and my personal goals. I believe that better recognition of the importance of both animal and human behaviour will result in more effective approaches to conservation, particularly in developing countries where artisanal fisheries are of great importance.