I spent my early childhood on the east coast of Canada, racing into the icy cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Whale watching was a rare excursion that my three siblings and I could all agree on. Memories of breaching whales have faded over the years, but one memory from these trips has stood the test of time: a fisher reeling in a formidable fish – a shark! Transferring to the landlocked province of Alberta removed me from the seascape, and my intellectual pursuits eventually focused on law and policy. After completing a BA in international relations, I worked as a legal assistant at a busy Calgary-based criminal defence firm, but then an internship at a social justice law firm took me to Cape Town and back to the Atlantic. Though my work was challenging and important, what got me through days spent in Parliament was the anticipation of the weekend ahead, when I would be diving in kelp forests or further offshore, perpetually on the lookout for that formidable fish from my childhood. No longer content to treat the ocean as a hobby and encouraged by my supervisor, I decided to take my aptitude for policy and forge a new path – in marine conservation. I returned to a landlocked life, sort of, but found opportunities to participate in field courses and travel to Florida and The Bahamas to learn from brilliant shark scientists and other hopeful marine scientists. Savouring every moment, from baiting hooks to reeling the sharks in, I knew that I was ready for my next chapter. My Master’s took me to beautiful north Wales, hardly the vision of idyllic islands people pictured when I told them I was changing course to become a shark scientist. This is where I fell in love (virtually) with Rhina ancylostoma, the bizarre bowmouth guitarfish, distinguished by enlarged thorns, large dorsal fins and the head of a horseshoe crab.
Conducting largely internet-based research means I can work remotely. I was based in the UK for a little over a year and have recently returned to Canada. Researching online trade is desk-heavy work, as you can imagine, but is essential to improving estimates of the volume of bowmouth guitarfish in online trade that will lay the groundwork to inform strategies for sustainable trade. Connecting with researchers and photographers across the range states of the bowmouth guitarfish via e-mail has enabled me to gather interesting and insightful records that would have been far more difficult, time-consuming and expensive to gather without the connectivity the internet offers. My project funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation has brought me to Thailand, starting in the world’s busiest amulet market, Tha Prachan in Bangkok. From there we will travel southward to other markets and ports to learn about the supply chain and trade from local traders and fishers.
My research focuses on the online trade of curios and amulets derived from elasmobranchs, almost exclusively from the bowmouth guitarfish and specifically on the characteristic enlarged thorns that run down its back and over its eyes. I captured the online presence of bowmouth products through a multi-platform search approach, to quantify the economic value of and online trade in the species. Having identified consistent advertisements as far back as 2012, I was able to characterise the products and the types of sellers. By collecting data on bowmouth products and their quantity in the physical markets, I am gaining insight into the socio-economic drivers of the trade as well as an understanding of the supply chain. These data will contribute greatly to critical research and data gaps and help to inform trade policy, nationally and internationally.