Project Leader

James Kilfoil

James Kilfoil

Who I am

From the time they were children, many marine biologists have known exactly what they wanted to be. You’ll often hear stories about how growing up on the coast and swimming and diving with the fishes they now study led them to this wonderful career. I, however, was born and raised in Missouri, USA, and as a child had very little exposure to the ocean. I didn’t even know the job of marine biologist existed. It wasn’t until my last semester of undergraduate courses, studying abroad in Australia, that this began to change. I was able to take electives in marine biology, scuba dived for the very first time off the Great Barrier Reef and was exposed to individuals who had decided to turn their passion for the marine world into their life’s work. In a word, I was hooked! I returned to the USA and immediately began applying for graduate programmes in marine biology and fisheries. I haven’t looked back since and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

After I’ve explained how a kid from Missouri grew up to be a marine biologist, the second most common question I get is, ‘Why sharks?’ The simplest answer I can give is, ‘Why would you want to study anything else?!’ The unique morphology, physiology, behaviour and functional role of elasmobranchs provide the perfect subject for a curious scientific mind. This, coupled with recent declines in many populations on a global scale, makes the study of these animals of utmost importance if we are to ensure healthy marine ecosystems for future generations.

Where I work

The bulk of my dissertation research focuses on ways to improve video surveys used for the study of shark and ray populations. Accordingly, our efforts are often restricted to environments where using video surveys are considered a practicable research tool. This means we regularly work in clear, relatively shallow and often tropical marine environments. As a part of this work, I spend the bulk of my summers on research vessels in French Polynesia, the Florida Keys (USA) and The Bahamas. The diversity and density of elasmobranch populations in these study sites are very different, which enables us to develop and test new tools and techniques that can be applied broadly to a variety of systems.

What I do

Nearly half of all sharks and rays are considered ‘data deficient,’ which means that we lack the most basic of information needed to protect their populations effectively. We must find new and innovative sampling methods to address these current gaps in knowledge, particularly for species threatened with extinction such as the Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata. A potentially independent population of smalltooth sawfishes has recently been identified in The Bahamas and has been suggested as a research priority for future recovery efforts. However, traditional sampling methods (long-lines and gill nets) are not well suited for this species in the region, given the invasive nature of the equipment and the sawfish’s preference for a shallow-water mangrove habitat. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may offer a non-invasive solution to study this species in previously inaccessible environments. Working with the Save Our Seas Foundation, we will be conducting the first standardised UAV survey of the smalltooth sawfish in The Bahamas. Furthermore, we will use model and captive shark proxies to estimate current detection rates for UAV surveys, while exploring technical innovations to increase detection probability. Through this work, we hope to not only further the conservation of the smalltooth sawfish, but also develop methodologies that are broadly applicable to many of the world’s data deficient shark and ray populations.


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