Shark Week may be over, but not for Dr. Craig O'Connell - did you watch him? He was on quite a bit this year! He lives like every week is Shark Week... so let's dive into his life.
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in pursuing a career in marine science?
Dr. Craig O'Connell: Yes. As a little kid I was always fascinated by the marine environment, namely sharks! Whether it was seeing these animals in books, watching documentaries, or going to the aquarium, I couldn’t get enough.
TFUI: Were you always enamored with sharks or did that fascination come later in life?
COC: Yes. I think watching Shark Week as a little kid was something that helped spark a future fascination I would have with these creatures. In fact, it was a very Shark Week documentary that motivated me to try and find an eco-friendly solution to shark nets, the devastating nets that are utilized in several places around the world (e.g. South Africa and Australia).
TFUI: No way!
COC: In this documentary, a shark was entangled and struggling and I was informed that this shark would soon perish. As a young kid I knew this was wrong and by my senior year of college, I came up with a novel idea that may effectively deter sharks from these nets. After a decade of studying the concept, I learned that this new technology is a plausible one and one that may one day save thousands of sharks each and every year. But at the end of the day, the real issues are the shark nets and drumlines themselves.
TFUI: How so?
COC: If we could somehow simply remove these nets and drumlines, than I think collectively as scientists and the general public, “we have won”. Making an environment more convenient for us by killing sharks just so we can enjoy the coastal environment in a recreational manner is disgusting behavior and something I hope changes in the very near future.
TFUI: What was your first shark encounter?
COC: My first shark encounter happened on a high school trip to the Florida Keys. I took a Marine Mammology course and for part of the course, we got to go snorkeling at Looe Key Reef. During the first snorkel, I could remember seeing the perfect silhouette of a shark approaching me from a distance. With each passing second, this shark got closer and closer until before I knew it, it was only a few feet away from me. Preparing to be attacked, I clenched my body, turned my head, but made sure I kept one eye on the animal. As I watched the shark, I noticed that it was equally watching me. Ten seconds later, this shark was on its away not to be seen again and my body filled with adrenaline. Unlike any movie or documentary I’d ever seen, I couldn’t believe that this shark was just feet away me and it didn’t attack me or seem even the slightest bit menacing. This interaction motivated me even further to pursue a career in shark science to not only help dispel many of the myths surrounding these fascinating creatures, but also to find ways to save them.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the research you currently do?
COC: I currently am involved with projects in several locations around the world. I am implementing BRUVS work in South Africa, great hammerhead shark behavioral work in the Bahamas, and shark conservation research in Montauk, NY.
TFUI: Why is your research important?
COC: Since the majority of my time is spent working in Montauk, I will share a brief bit about that research. My team has been focused on this region as it is the largest commercial fishing port in New York; however, it is also a highly diverse region with a variety of both small and large shark species. Over the past 6 years we have been studying this area (using BRUVS, short deployment longlines, and rod-and-reel surveys) to determine both the biological and environmental characteristics that may be correlated with the presence and/or absence of a variety of shark species. With our efforts, we are using a completely novel technique to characterize what may be a white shark nursery area. This is an entirely exciting and relevant study as I have come to learn that these neonate and juvenile white sharks are extensively captured and perish in the variety of fishing gears (e.g. gill nets) that are used in the region. Should this be defined as a nursery area based on our efforts, our team will turn this research into conservation action.
TFUI: So, you are the co-founder and Director of O'Seas Conservation Foundation. What sparked the idea to create this amazing resource and how do you hope it grows?
COC: Since the start of my M.Sc. at Coastal Carolina University, I wanted to start my own shark conservation research program in my own backyard (the waters surrounding Long Island, NY).
TFUI: How cool!
COC: However, during my M.Sc. I also got the opportunity to teach K-12 students though a variety of unique outreach opportunities made possible through a National Science Foundation Grant. Therefore, I also realized that although shark conservation research is important, educating youth is equally as important because without them understanding the benefits of a healthy ocean, they will never grow up wanting to protect it. With very hard work and the help of many organizations, including SharkProject – Austria, SharkProject – Switzerland, the PADI Foundation, the WAVE Foundation, the Greg Norman Company, and many others (especially my family), I was able to help make this dream of creating a shark conservation and youth education nonprofit a reality.
TFUI: That is amazing! Congratulations!
COC: With the success of our research thus far, we have three long-term goals: (1) Generate sufficient funding for our summer Shark Camp program (a program where 8th-12th grade youth get a week-long field research experience and help tag white, thresher, dusky, and sandbar sharks in Montauk) so that this program can be free to all participants, (2) See our current research findings transition into true conservation action, and (3) Establish a laboratory facility in Montauk.
TFUI: So we have to talk about your Shark Camp-- you have one for 8-12th graders and now one for adults! For the younger students, you even have a scholarship! In your opinion, why are these camps so important for changing the perception of sharks?
COC: I didn’t understand what a shark was truly about until I saw one in the wild. Prior to that experience, the media made sharks look like devastating man-eaters that were relentless; however, after my first shark interaction, I knew the media was wrong. Therefore, our Shark Camp (for kids) allow them to get hands on and get an accurate education about the nature of these sharks. After spending countless hours in the field and encountering everything from a smooth dogfish shark to white sharks, they end their week-long experience diving in a shark cage with sand tiger sharks. Although nervous when they first meet me because they have no idea what lies ahead, they leave the camp with a huge smile on their face, a huge appreciation for sharks, and a newfound passion to conduct shark conservation work. That is the goal – and I couldn’t be happier to be providing a program that not only gets youth involved in shark research, but also a program that is actively conducting shark conservation research that may have regional conservation outcomes.
TFUI: You have been featured in Discovery Channel's Shark Week - how was that experience?! How surreal was it to see yourself on TV?
COC: As a kid, I always wanted to be on Shark Week; however, I never had the desire to see my face on TV. I rather saw Shark Week as an opportunity to teach the world about sharks, to dispel myths, and illustrate how creativity can not only help us understand some of the unique characteristics of these animals, but also how this very creativity can be used to save them. Often people want to be on TV for the wrong reasons (e.g. seeing their face on TV) and this is never really conducive to sending out a good message or serving as a good role model.
TFUI: We agree.
COC: TV is a valuable tool that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to use to help share my conservation message. To all you youngsters out there that think TV and other sources of media are what you should be striving for in the shark Science field, I can assure you, you are wrong. Strive to do good work, work that has a real impact and once you have done that work, use TV, conferences, and other sources of media to educate others.
TFUI: What was the greatest takeaway from your first gig with them?
COC: Regarding my experiences, I have now hosted quite a few Shark Week episodes, others for the Smithsonian Channel and Nat Geo and it is exciting to see that I am getting a variety of opportunities that have helped me make great strides in Conservation Science. Each experience is different but during each experience, I get to travel to incredible places, meet amazing people, and get the opportunity to see some of the most fascinating forms of wildlife on the planet. But don’t let TV documentaries fool you, these experiences are HARD, tiresome, stressful, and take months and months of preparatory work prior to each shoot.
TFUI: We can only imagine! Now, you have quite a few projects going on in/off Montauk, New York! Why is this area of such high importance to elasmobranchs in your opinion?
COC: Montauk is the largest commercial fishing port in New York. In addition, Montauk is a shark hotspot made famous by legendary and late shark fishermen, Frank Mundus, that has fallen off the map in recent decades. It was my goal to start a new weekly shark survey off of Montauk to determine the health, density, and diversity of shark populations in the area. After six years of work (and many more to come), I’ve learned that Montauk is an ecologically important location for not just this particular region, but the entire New York Bight (i.e. Region spanning from Cape May, NJ to Montauk, NY) and perhaps even the entire eastern US. The reasons for this are a work in progress and I will be sharing them in the years to come.
TFUI: Ooh, we can't wait to read! So what is the most rewarding thing about your job?
COC: There are many rewarding things associated with my job, here are a few of them: (1) Getting to share my passion with the world, (2) Getting to see my team’s creativity turn into real conservation action, (3) Getting to educate youth and see their fear quickly transition into passion, (4) Getting to spend countless hours on and under the water observing and learning about some of the most functionally unique animals on this planet, and (5) Getting to educate the world about the true nature and importance of sharks.
TFUI: Definitely sounds like the best job ever. Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
COC: Yes, I think people are starting to realize the importance of following local, regional and federal retention regulations. I also think that fishermen are beginning to realize that an ocean without sharks would be a very unhealthy one so in many cases, I am seeing fishermen practice catch and release rather than catch and kill practices when it comes to sharks. This is promising and is showing positive signs towards local conservation; however, this is not enough. Recently, the populations associated with numerous large shark species, especially the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), have illustrated that many years of unsustainable harvest have led to drastic population declines. These declines are concerning and will not only have local consequences, but rather consequences associated with the entire ranges of these charismatic species. The good news is that we have the information and now we just have to use this information to make wise decisions so we can implement change before it is too late.
TFUI: What’s next for you research-wise?
COC: Our goal is to take our local Montauk-based research and turn it into conservation action. We have many relevant and surprising findings so we hope in the coming months/years to utilize these findings to inform the local community and fisheries managers so proper management regulations can be implemented and the fragile ecological balance that surrounds Montauk can be maintained for many years to come.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK DR. CRAIG FOR HIS TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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