Who I am
I love this planet, a giant drop of salty water spinning through the universe, a teardrop of joy and pain from the gods. I am devoting my career to learning about marine wildlife so that we may conserve, or sustainably harvest, life from the seas. As a child wandering the tidal pools of Hong Kong and fishing the lakes of Michigan, I yearned to see what was in the depths. I pursued studies in biology and oceanography, learning the amazing mechanics of the ocean–atmosphere system and discovering the migrations of tuna and sharks. I am driven to learn by going into the ocean every day, whether it be spending five hours underwater on a closed-circuit rebreather, free-diving into the depths with a spear gun to collect specimens or carefully bringing sharks alongside the boat to conduct ultrasound procedures. I believe that we must consider ourselves to be a part of – not apart from – nature. In a global context, we are predators taking extravagant numbers of prey from the oceans and must consider the myriad consequences of these extractions. In a personal context, we are part of the food web, so when capturing our ‘prey’ for research, we must read the body language of sharks and communicate back to them clearly. In a societal context, we need to understand that fishers don’t disappear after their fisheries have closed. If a reduction in harvest is needed, alternative livelihoods will also be required. My work has often focused on studying species that are hard to acquire, from deep-living snappers that suffer barotrauma when captured to sixgill sharks plying the depths or Napoleon wrasse that we anaesthetise underwater and cradle in our arms to protect them as we bring them to the boat for surgery.
Where I work
I split my year between Virginia and Hawaii in the USA, which allows me to follow the migrations of fish up and down the east coast of North America and to dive the restless waters of Hawaii, shorn by 30-knot trade winds and long swells from distant storms. My research has taken me around the world to many wonderful places and I have always delighted in seeing different oceans, often by free-diving when travels or remoteness do not allow for scuba. We are presently working to understand the biology of the Rhinopristiformes in Taiwan. The island nation has a diverse and dramatic oceanographic setting. The shallow and highly productive sea to the west hosts a variety of wedgefish and guitarfish species that inhabit sedimentary benthic environments, whereas the precipitously steep eastern side of the island drops into the extreme depths of the Pacific Ocean and is swept by the powerful Kuroshio Current. Reports from commercial fishermen indicate that wedgefish and guitarfish live at greater depths in eastern Taiwan, often below 200 metres (656 feet). Taiwan is a maritime nation with a dizzying array of fisheries, from neuston tows that collect tiny larvae from the water’s surface to longlines for pelagic species and net draggers that bring up precious corals. Demersal species such as wedgefish and guitarfish can be heavily impacted by bottom-contact methods such as trawling, so we aim to shed light on the habitat requirements of these species so that more targeted conservation measures can be implemented.
What I do
I am a field biologist who specialises in the observation, capture, sampling and tagging of fish in the wild. I collaborate with scientists who have complementary expertise such as genetics and oceanographic modelling so that we can accomplish larger objectives such as forecasting how a species will react to climate change. I collaborate with commercial fishermen too, as they are usually much better at acquiring fish than scientists are, so I can learn from them to be better at my craft. I also collaborate with fishermen because we must get to know them to understand their perspectives on marine conservation so that measures taken to protect ecosystems and marine life can be successful. Many of my days are spent underwater, diving to observe sea creatures, deploy equipment or spear specimens for research. We also do a lot of fishing, from normal recreational fishing poles to drumlines for large sharks. No matter now large your hook is, there is a shark out there that can bend or break it, so I have developed a system to catch large specimens in a gentler manner – gentler on our fishing gear so that it doesn’t break and gentler on the animals. My work has taken me to many wonderful places, and in each one we need to adapt to local conditions to be successful. In a remote area of the Seychelles the visibility was great, but it was hard to see because so many fish were blocking the view! In exploited areas such as Oahu, however, it can be hard to find species of interest and we have to go where wind and current conditions keep others away.