Marine biologist Alastair Harry has been researching elasmobranchs for a while now. A fellow Bimini Biological Field Station alum, he's a fisheries scientist in Western Australia. Meaning he has the coolest job in Western Australia, duh. Check out what he does in this Behind the Fins series interview!
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in pursuing a career in marine science?
Alastair Harry: When I was in Grade 10 at high school the Career Guidance Councillors made us choose a career so they could help us select subjects for our final two years. Marine biologist was what jumped into my mind, and I'm pretty stubborn, so once I'd made that decision I never even considered anything else. I was a nature lover growing up and fascinated by the ocean, so I guess it wasn't entirely out of character.
TFUI: Were you always enamored with sharks or did that fascination come later in life?
AH: More so by rays actually, but yes, elasmobranchs always interested me.
TFUI: What was your first encounter?
AH: My first real experience with sharks came when I interned at the Bimini Biological Field Station right after my undergrad degree. In the few months I was there I got to freedive with adult lemon, bull, nurse, and Caribbean reef sharks. I saw tiger sharks, blacktips, blacknose, eagle rays and two 3 metre sawfish all close up in the crystal clear water of the Bahamas.
TFUI: Wow! No kidding!
AH: There was no turning back after that, it was a mind blowing experience!
TFUI:Can you tell us a little bit about the work you currently do? Why is your work important?
AH: I'm a fisheries scientist and I work for (the Department formerly known as) Fisheries Western Australia (WA), so state government. In my first few years there I was heavily involved with a third-party fishery certification project. In short, we ran a massive audit of all the agency's science and management practices, bench-marking everything against the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable fishing standard. Many of WA's fisheries have since gone on to become MSC 'certified sustainable' on the back of that work.
TFUI: That's amazing!
AH: When I started out in fisheries I initially wanted to work on fisheries modelling, but through the MSC project I ended up learning about all aspects of 'Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management' and I worked across nearly all of WA's 50 or so fisheries. Now I do a bit of everything. I'm involved in some stock assessment work, but also work on bycatch and threatened species monitoring. I prefer to do quantitative stuff (coding, modelling, stats), but also do a lot of report writing and some policy work. I don't work directly on sharks most of the time, but there is never any shortage of shark-related work to get involved in if I need a fix!
TFUI: We're sure, haha.
AH: I work very much in the applied sciences, so it's easy to see the importance of the work. When you see the benefits that can flow to so many areas of society from having well-managed marine resources it's really strong motivation to keep trying to improve things.
TFUI: Since 2013 you have independently maintained a research program on sharks and rays. What sparked the idea to create this and how do you hope it grows?
AH: I finished my PhD in 2011 on the fisheries biology of hammerhead and whaler sharks. I couldn't really see any paths that would enable me to keep doing that work, but at the same time I felt I was just getting started, and I still had a lifetime's worth of research questions that I wanted to answer. Once I moved into government there was little time to publish so I decided to just start a 'research program' in my own time. I guess you could just call it a hobby, but I have a very clear strategy of what I would like to achieve and how to get there. Things move very slowly, but there are some upsides. I can do whatever I want, I initiate collaborations only with colleagues I genuinely admire, I can take as much time as I want to do things, and I can pursue research that I think is important, not what funding bodies deem important.
TFUI: You are particularly interested in the life histories of these sharks and rays as they relate to sustainable management and conservation. Can you elaborate a little bit on this?
AH: Life history refers to the demographic changes that organisms go through from birth to death which influence population growth. This includes traits like how fast they grow, when they mature, how long they live, and how frequently they reproduce. One of the main uses of life history information is in developing strategies for management and conservation, so it's important that this information is accurate and unbiased. Unfortunately sharks and rays are often difficult to study, and even for a lot of well-studied species there is still a very incomplete understanding of life history. I'm interested in not only quantifying these life history traits, but improving how the data are collected, analysed and interpreted.
TFUI: Your work has been featured in numerous news outlets such as the Washington Post, Nature News, and National Geographic. Do you think this kind of exposure of shark science can lead to better conservation initiatives/policies in the long run?
AH: Absolutely. There is a constant need for stories that portray sharks and rays for the complex and interesting organisms that they are, so anything that can contribute to that is a good thing.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
AH: Over the last year I've been getting out into the field again after a long hiatus, so that has been really rewarding. As a fisheries scientist, fieldwork typically isn't as glamorous as many other areas of marine science, but I've been fortunate to visit some incredible places, most recently in the remote northern regions of WA.
TFUI: That sounds beautiful!
AH: I also really like working with fishers themselves, getting to know how their fisheries operate, and finding out where my food comes from.
TFUI: Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
AH: I was just discussing this with a friend last week actually. Western Australia is unusual, globally, in that it is just so vast and sparsely inhabited. Rapid growth has really only happened in the past few decades, and is confined to a small area. As a result the marine ecosystems are still relatively pristine, especially further north. In places like Ningaloo Reef, you can snorkel right off the beach and see big, old fish swimming around. As someone interested in population biology, I find this really amazing. Even in places that have healthy, exploited populations of fish, most of those big and old fish are long gone, especially in easily accessible locations. I think because of the way WA has developed we haven't suffered from 'shifting baselines' as much as other areas have. People have an appreciation of what healthy ecosystems look like and there is a motivation to keep them that way, or support decisions by managers to return them to that state.
TFUI: What about with sharks?
AH: Sharks are a far more complex issue... that's a question for another day.
TFUI: What is your favourite species of elasmobranch and why?
AH: Probably the great hammerhead. They are just such an astonishing and impressive predator, I just love their bizarre appearance, especially their huge fins. I never expected to study them, but they turned out to be quite common around Townsville where I did my PhD, so they became one of my focal study species. It was always exciting getting to see one.
TFUI: What’s the rest of 2018 got in store for you?
AH: I'm taking two months parental leave in May, but hopefully a few more field trips later in the year doing fishery-dependent and -independent surveys in the north of WA again.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK ALASTAIR FOR HIS TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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