Ready to dive into some shark science down under? So are we! Which is why we are excited to have Charlie Huveneers join The Fins United Initiative for our Behind the Fins series. He is an associate professor and leads the Southern Shark Ecology Group (SSEG) research lab at Flinders University.
Dive on in...
The Fins United Initiative: First off, we gotta ask-- why sharks?
Charlie Huveneers: I was first interested in sharks when I was 12 years old and had to choose an animal to do a presentation on. My mother bought me a book about sharks co-edited by John Stevens which emphasised how little we knew about sharks and how much they were misunderstood by the general public. The lack of knowledge about sharks made me want to learn more about them and to study them. Since then, I worked towards being able to study these animals and increase our level of knowledge to avoid previous misconceptions and improve sharks and rays conservation status.
TFUI: What is your day-to- day schedule like?
CH: I’m currently employed as an academic at Flinders University where my time is spent on teaching and research (50:50). I’m coordinating the Animal Behaviour degree at Flinders and also teach in marine biology, ecology, and fisheries science. When I’m not teaching, I co- supervise several Honours, Masters, and PhD students and lead various research projects focused on the effects of wildlife tourism and sustainable fisheries to ensure adequate management.
TFUI: You currently the leader of the Southern Ecology Group. Can you tell us a little bit about the research you and your students currently do?
CH: The Southern Shark Ecology Group delivers high quality research on the biology, ecology and population status of sharks and rays, as well as assessments of their vulnerability to fishing pressure, interactions with humans and related public perception. Our research is aimed at creating a more complete understanding of sharks and how our interactions with them have changed over time. The primary aims of our research include the determination of life history characteristics of sharks to improve assessments of their vulnerabilities to human, environmental and climatic impact, and investigations of their movement dynamics and residency patterns using various tracking tools including acoustic telemetry and satellite tagging. Our group currently focuses on investigating the effects of wildlife tourism on sharks from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including an assessment of the socio-economic value of wildlife tourism, behavioural changes, energetic implications, effects of provisioning on white sharks feeding ecology using biochemical tracers, and potential for learnt behaviour in relation to shark cognitive abilities. We have also been deploying a large number of baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS) to assess the effects of a range of stressors (e.g., desalination plant, oyster aquaculture, fishing pressure, wildlife tourism) on South Australian fish assemblages.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about being a professor?
CH: The ability to work in your field of interest based on what you believe is most important rather than having to work on what you are being told to work on. Student motivation is also invigorating and constantly remind me of why I became a scientist and why I wanted to study sharks. Although I often end up working very long hours, the flexibility and ability to work anywhere and anytime provides a range of opportunities. These opportunities and ability to work with friends and new collaboration on exciting projects leads to new scientific questions and to endless interest in science and shark ecology.
TFUI: Your lab recently published a study that empirically showed wildlife tourism can positively change conservation behaviour.
CH: This study was led by Kirin Apps based at Southern Cross University. In this study, we investigated the attitudes and environmental behaviour of 136 tourists following their white shark cage-dive experience at the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park in South Australia.
TFUI: For those who have no idea about what that means, can you elaborate and tell TFUI readers why this is such a big deal?
CH: While dolphins and whales are often the focus of marine wildlife tourism and activism, a more commonly held negative perception of sharks has meant that conservation for sharks has until recently received little public support. Public attitudes towards sharks have begun to change, with an increased level of interest and awareness of the scale of threats to global shark populations. In particular, continued change in public perception can be accelerated through the marine tourism industry. Once considered a disadvantage to coastal tourism, sharks are now considered an important attraction at dive sites around the world. Exposing tourists to sharks in their natural environment has considerable potential to enhance a participant's knowledge, attitude and behaviour towards sharks, and support their conservation. Empirical evidence to support this is, however, often lacking.
TFUI: So what did you all do?
CH: Responses to an online survey revealed a significant increase in participation for seven of the eight conservation-related behaviours explored, and a positive shift in participants’ understanding, awareness, attitudes and concern for sharks following their cage-diving experience. These results also suggest that emotional engagement during the tour is associated with enhancing participants’ knowledge and attitude towards sharks. Combining the emotional response of viewing wildlife with the educational benefits of a specifically designed interpretation programme allows tourism operators an opportunity to cultivate the conservation potential of the tourism experience. In a time of changing environments and species decline, encouraging tourists to adopt pro-conservation behaviours is an area of wildlife tourism that warrants implementation, and further investigation.
TFUI: What do you hope 2018 changes for sharks in regards to their image in the media?
CH: Mass media portrayal of sharks is often negative, with sensationalistic headlines and imagery that amplify public fear and can heighten public anxiety about the pervasive presence of
sharks and probability of encounters resulting in human fatalities. This reaction, in turn, influences government policy responses and public expectations of action from its political
leadership. Unfortunately, I doubt that this is going to change rapidly and shark attacks will often lead to similar stories.
TFUI: So what do you think one can do?
CH: Wildlife scientists, conservation groups, and managers need to recognise the patterns of media portrayal and framing of stories about human-wildlife encounters, conflicts and mitigation measures (such as culling, in the case of sharks), and anticipate the types of media coverage the public may be exposed to following rare but fatal incidences of wildlife attacks. This will enable wildlife managers to improve their communication strategies with the media and public, thereby limiting the effects of social amplification of the perceived risk of shark bites.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
CH: In five years, I would like to have expanded my research groups to include a couple of post-docs and continue collaborations with the white shark cage-diving industry to enable long- term assessment of the effects of wildlife tourism. Most investigations of anthropogenic effects are typically based on short-term data due to the logistical and financial difficulties of collecting long-term datasets. Thanks to the support of the cage-diving industry and South Australian government, we will be able to investigate new questions about the long-term influence of wildlife tourism.
TFUI: We look forward to seeing more cutting-edge science out of your lab!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK charlie FOR HIS TIME AND
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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