I grew up exploring tide pools, fishing and snorkelling along the west coast of Australia. At age nine I announced to my family that I was going to be a marine biologist. That started a life-long journey of discovery and adventure with the ocean. I studied at James Cook University in Queensland, first for my Bachelor’s degree and then PhD. Along the way, the opportunity to research sharks and rays presented itself Since then, elasmobranch have been the primary focus of my career for 30 years.
It was during my PhD in the late 1980s that I caught my first sawfish – a narrow sawfish. At the time, we had no idea this unique group of rays, with the body of a shark and the nose of a hedge trimmer would struggle to maintain a healthy population. It was only years later that we discovered heavy population loss across all five species in the sawfish family. The animals had been savaged by decades of target and bycatch fisheries, and loss of important coastal and riverine habitats. We now know that sawfish are the most threatened group of sharks and rays on the planet.
In 1998, I moved to Florida and worked at Mote Marine Laboratory. It was there that I ran my first dedicated sawfish research project investigating the conservation ecology of the smalltooth sawfish. At the time, this species was newly listed under the US Endangered Species Act. My research helped inform policies and regulations that have enabled the population of sawfish in US waters to show signs of recovery.
In 2007, I moved back to James Cook University to continue my shark and ray research. The waters of the Great Barrier Reef offer amazing opportunities to study this important group of ocean predators. Researching here has also provided me the opportunity to do some interesting science, designed to help improve conservation, not just of sawfish, but sharks and rays in general. Still, the challenges that sharks and rays face in Australia are nothing compared to many other parts of the world where fishing is poorly controlled. In recent years, I have increasingly engaged in research that is designed to make a global difference.
Recently, some of the folks I work with at James Cook University started using a new technique called Environmental DNA (known more commonly as eDNA). The principle is simple: all animals that live in water shed their DNA, leaving behind a signature of their presence. If you take a water sample and filter it you can test for the presence of a species’ DNA. This technique is becoming a powerful tool for studying the distribution of rare and threatened species because you don’t have to actually search for and capture animals.
Given the potential of this technique, I decided to work alongside my colleagues, Dean Jerry (James Cook University), and Peter Kyne (Charles Darwin University) to test its potential as a tool for studying sawfish occurrence and distribution. The results were clear – sawfish could be detected using eDNA techniques. This enabled us to design a project to address one of the big problems sawfish conservation faces: “where do sawfish still occur?”