Project Leader

Lara Fola-Matthews

Lara Fola-Matthews

Who I am

As a passionate marine biologist, I study elasmobranchs so that the information I uncover can guide plans to conserve and manage these vulnerable species. I have always loved the ocean and its resources and am particularly fascinated by its megafauna. Fisheries feature prominently in my academic background: I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in fisheries at the University of Lagos and a Master’s degree in fisheries management, and I am currently a PhD candidate in fisheries at the same university. My research focused on the use of science, education and conservation to provide information that would improve knowledge about shark fisheries in Nigeria. In a bid to understand the country’s shark diversity, I undertook a study to identify species off the coast using DNA barcoding. I also studied the bio-ecology and exploitation estimates of the common smooth-hound shark in the South-West region of Nigeria.

My PhD research increased my interest in sharks as I noticed during my surveys that there are very few data on them, which is the main reason why policy-makers are unable to draft a plan of action for these species. I have worked with fishers, NGOs and stakeholders, and I have also developed partnerships with schools in my country. This gives me the opportunity to engage with students about shark conservation, while my training as a teacher has given me the formal skills to help ignite their interest. I work as a researcher at the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, where I use biological sciences to answer conservation and management questions on elasmobranchs and I train students to be champions of ocean conservation. I’m an active member of several shark conservation societies and a co-author of a book that showcases diverse voices in shark research all over the world.

Where I work

Nigeria’s coastal communities are home to artisanal fishermen who target sharks and also capture them as bycatch. Most of my research has been in liaison with the fishers from coastal communities in Lagos and Ondo states, which form part of the country’s South-West region. I am familiar with the dialect of this area and when working in these regions I’m able to find out about the status of sharks in the past. Lagos and Ondo are on the Atlantic coast, which makes them important sites for fishing. At the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, most of our sampling of sharks and rays takes place in the Gulf of Guinea aboard the institute’s research vessel, the Bayagbona. Our mandate is to conduct research on the resources and physical characteristics of Nigeria’s territorial waters and the high seas beyond, and to collect data that answer questions about the biology, abundance and distribution of marine fish species so that they can be exploited sustainably and conserved. Nigeria’s coastline is 853 kilometres (530 miles) long and runs through seven of the Southern States of the Federation: Lagos, Ondo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers. The continental shelf widens progressively from 35 kilometres (22 miles) in Lagos in the west to 64 kilometres (40 miles) around the Cape of Forcados in the Niger Delta area and, at its widest, 75 kilometres (46 miles) off Calabar. It is framed by two canyons, Avons and Mahin, in the west and the Calabar canyon in the east.

What I do

My project involves science, education and conservation to strengthen efforts to protect the Critically Endangered scalloped hammerhead shark in Nigeria. Research into elasmobranchs is at an early stage in my country and scientific information, both past and present, for all shark species is scarce. My field trips involve measuring the biometrics of the species and analysing its reproductive parts to understand its breeding behaviour. To estimate the extent to which it is – and has been – exploited, I conduct interviews with the young and retired fishers of coastal communities using a questionnaire that focuses on catch and bycatch trends, abundance, landing frequency, distribution, fishing operations and trade routes. Local volunteers are trained to collect, record and store data, with the long-term goal that they will become independent citizen scientists. We also aim to create a forum where fishers, community members and other stakeholders can interact to discuss measures that would mitigate threats to sharks and to assist in drafting policies that would improve the conservation of the scalloped hammerhead. The overall goal is to provide decision-makers with baseline data to enact laws that would ensure the long-term conservation and management of these sharks. For continuity, we are forming a network of conservation teams comprising shark enthusiasts in Nigeria who are keen to share ideas about the progress of shark conservation in the country.

My project

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