For Christmas 2015 TFUI Founder Melissa's (new) husband bought her the complete edition of The Fishes of New Zealand. Melissa was beyond excited... especially because it was written/edited by some people in Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand. This museum had captured Melissa and Josh's hearts and soon she would be sucked into the series.
If you had told her then and there that she would be sharing biscuits with Andrew Stewart, one of the editors of the books, she would have laughed. Impossible! What started out as Melissa doing an informational interview (and taking the opportunity to have Andrew sign her book) led to a friendship... and she feels very lucky to not only have him as a role model but that he took the time to answer some questions for TFUI.
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions today, Andrew! So what do you currently do? What is a typical day like for you?
Andrew Stewart: It varies depending on what has come in and what is happening elsewhere in the organization. Broadly it breaks down to: Collection Management (care of the existing material); Registration (identification tissue sampling, fixing etc.) of new material; Answering enquiries (public & professional); Research (writing papers); and Exhibition development.
TFUI: What sort of Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras) does the museum have in its collection?
AS: We cover the full gambit of sharks, rays and chimaeras from the New Zealand region. Because of the collection storage systems we have developed, we are able to preserve and store large numbers of large specimens in hundreds of tanks (250 to 3,300 litres). Our biggest specimen is a 3 m 400 kg sleeper shark, but we also have a 250 kg Devil ray, a 300 kg white shark and so on. The biggest (basking shark, whale shark and manta ray) are still only recorded from either photographs or small pieces recovered from beach strandings.
TFUI: What Chondrichthyan has been the most remarkable to catalogue and why?
AS: The biggest specimens have posed the largest problem to overcome. To fix them we have temporary wooden fixing tanks constructed. lined with multiple layers of plastic. Handling these large ones also pose challenges needing several people and hoists. Then when a researcher needs to examine them the whole process has to be reversed. Getting these species out of not done lightly. Then there are the really cool smaller ones like the knifetooth dogfish (only known from the north-east Atlantic and New Zealand), goblin sharks, and the really small cigar shark.
TFUI: You’ve been on numerous trips at sea—what has been the most fascinating animal you’ve encountered?
AS: That’s a hard one. Each time the net comes up it’s like getting a present. On the last trip I did in 2017 along the east coast of Australia we got a largetooth cookiecutter (Isistius plutodus). It had me stumped for a while, as the body seemed more slender than the bulk standard cookiecutters we’d been catching, and it had a less distinct collar mark, until the penny dropped and I counted the lower jaw teeth. Then there were the wonderfully bizarre Giganturid telescopefishes we got on the same trip – not sharks I know, but huge forward-looking eyes and mouths jammed packed with wicked slender long teeth….totally wonderful :)
TFUI: What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
AS: Another really hard question to answer: I have had the incredible privilege of going on some of the really cool deep-sea expeditions around New Zealand and down to the Southern Ocean. Then there are the great colleagues I get to meet and call friends the worlds specialists in some of the groups. People talk about ‘living the dream’, but that is what I’m doing. I have wanted to study fishes since I was about 3 years old!
One of the funniest things is not shark-related, but it is fishy: I was contacted by the weigh-master of a fishing competition wanting me ID a fish (landed alive) based on the outline drawn around it and FAXed through to me (they were looking for a digital camera). When the FAX came through I rang him back & asked if someone was taking the piss..!! The fish I was told was ‘….caught about an hours steam from the harbor heads’. I told him to sell the vessels hull design to the American Cup defense, because it was only found in the Amazon Basin – it was a red-bellied piranha!! Apparently the person had (illegally) a tank full of them in his garage.
TFUI: Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
AS: Science in general is very poorly supported in this country. Jobs, careers, wages that reflect expertise, succession planning are all badly lacking.
TFUI: If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
AS: The fishes of the Deep Sea – the mid-water to benthic below 1,500 m; especially the abyssal plain which is virtually unexplored here.
TFUI: What makes New Zealand unique in regards to the diversity of teleosts that call NZ waters home? What about Chondrichthyans?
AS: We straddle across a wide latitude from the sub-tropics to the sub-Antarctic with a hugely complex submarine topography. Combining this with a long geological isolation has resulted in high degree of endemism in the skates. The other side of the coin are the globally distributed species. I don’t think we have by any stretch of the imagination arrived at the definitive list of the Chondrichthyian fauna for the New Zealand region. We have just received two adult whitetailed dogfishes from the Campbell Plateau – a very rare species and a significantly southern range extension.
TFUI: Do you think New Zealanders have a good relationship with the ocean environment? If not, what can be done to better it?
AS: Things have improved since I was young, but, in the words of the school report we ‘Must try harder’; taking fewer fish to eat, letting the big ones go, more marine reserves, eliminating plastics – the list is long, but we can do it.
TFUI: If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
AS: Most of the things you’re worried about don’t actually matter, and they’ll resolve themselves anyway without your input.
the fins united initiative would like to thank andrew for his time and tfui founder melissa can't wait to see him again!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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