SUFB 119: Sharks and Climate Change with Dr. Chris Lowe

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This past Wednesday, Andrew sat down with Chris Lowe from California State University Long Beach’s Shark Lab to discuss current threats facing shark populations, the group’s population status as a whole, and how partnerships between researchers and fishers can go a long way to protecting these charismatic predators.

Before Chris was the driving force of the Shark Lab, he was a curios boy from a family of fishers up in Martha’s Vineyard. His ancestors were whalers, and that lifestyle of living off of the sea was quite influential in Chris’s early years. His grandfather, who was a commercial fisherman, would often take him out fishing while describing to him how the oceans had changed over the years. “He would tell me stories about an animal called a cod. And in all my time fishing in all of the spots…I never caught one. So for me to grow up there, the choices were to become a commercial fisherman, and my grandfather was like ‘no way, that career is done, it’s over,’ or I could become a carpenter. I decided that early on I was more interested in learning about the animals than I was in catching them just to sell them, [but] fishing was the way I became interested in not just sharks but in marine biology in general.”

Fast forward a few decades, and Chris’s work is now providing vital research on these poorly-studied animals in an attempt to better protect shark populations in the Pacific. Though the fact that his lineage in their own way contributed towards fisheries declines in the Atlantic isn’t lost on him, Chris believes that the reputation many fishers have among scientists and conservationists is unfounded. “I think there are a lot of fishers out there, not just recreational but commercial fishers, who have the best intentions in mind, and it’s been giving them more information and giving them better science so they can make better decisions themselves. And they care about their resource.” This is a great point, and one that is incredibly important for scientists working on fisheries management issues to realize. Protecting fish stocks is crucial for the fishing industry, and many individual fishers would deeply appreciate a chance to get involved in the scientific process for projects that may affect their way of life. Chris’s lab seeks to develop these relationships and collaborations as much as possible, preferring to use the term “partnerships” rather than “citizen science projects.”

These partnerships have driven a wide variety of quality science coming out of the CSU Shark Lab. Whether it’s developing “smart robots” that can mimic a sharks movements while collecting data on an individual animal’s behavior or whether it’s studying the diet and ecology of horn sharks in shallow, coastal ecosystems, Chris and his colleagues find every opportunity they can to learn more about the apex predators of many marine trophic systems. Perhaps one of the most intriguing topics discussed in this episode is the status of the white shark. Though listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, Chris claims that the data presented over the last few years has actually shown a surprising increase in white shark populations. It appears that, so far at least, the protective measures put in place over the last few decades have actually worked. However, Chris doesn’t believe it was just measures focused solely on white sharks that led to this rebound.

Back in the 1970s, a number of environmental policies were put in place. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) prohibited the take or harassment of any marine mammals in the United States. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976) helped ensure that U.S. fisheries were managed on a sustainable level. The Clean Water Act (1972) created safe aquatic environments through the U.S. With cleaner waters, we started to see healthier physical environments for marine animals. With healthier environments and more sustainable fishing regulations, commercial fish populations were given more space to reproduce. With greater populations of commercial fish, you have a larger food supply to support already growing marine mammals populations. With more marine mammals, you have more food available for sharks that feed on seals and sea lions, like white sharks. Therefore, protecting a single species is often more complicated than simply listing them for protection. Many times, you need what Chris likes to call “unintentional ecosystem management.” According to him, “these were all in place for different reasons, but cumulatively, have worked.”

To Chris, these types of studies show that when we actually attempt to protect a given habitat or species, we can create positive outcomes. But his motivation to better manage fisheries and shark populations doesn’t come from strictly a scientific obligation; for Chris, it’s a cultural and societal opportunity to return to a lost way of life. “For me, I feel like part of my culture has been lost, because coming from a long lineage of that, and then suddenly it ends. This has happened to many families, where fathers can no longer pass along boats to their sons or daughters because the industry is gone. Well, a lot of our coastal history throughout all of the U.S. was based on this culture. And it’s kind of sad to see it lost; I kind of hope that we can keep it going by being smarter about how we use natural resources and develop sustainable fisheries and I think we can bring some of that culture back.”

Enjoy the Podcast!

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