If you’ve ever passed by Sarasota, one of the not-so-hidden gems of this town is Mote Marine Laboratory. Started by the “Shark Lady,” Eugenie Clark (who still resides here), Motecontinues to pride itself on its research, education and outreach. Our first “Behind the Fins” Interview is with Dr. Robert E. Hueter, who is Associate Vice President for Research, as well as Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research. He’s proudly spent 27 years there!
With a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Marine Biology from the University of Miami and a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Florida, he’s studied sharks for more than 40 years, published countless articles and reports (over 150, boasts the official Mote website) and has followed sharks to all continents (except Antarctica... yes, Melissa asked).
He’s currently juggling 23 funded projects, but kindly took some time away to answer a few questions!
The Fins United Initiative: First things first: What are you studying right now?
Hueter: Coming up, I’ll be traveling to Cuba with Discovery Channel. Cuba is part of a tri-national approach to shark research/conservation that includes Mexico (whom I’ve been working with since 1995), Cuba (working with since 2005), and the US. This is everything from research to workshops to train students and scientists in Mexico and Cuba on how to manage fisheries for sustainability. Ultimately, we want to build bridges among various peoples and cultures in something we like to call, “science diplomacy.” The long term goal is a better understanding of science-based conservation in the global perspective.
TFUI: That's great, especially renewing US-Cuba relations!
Hueter: I’m also continuously researching the critical habitats, migratory routes and the impact on populations due to fisheries on various species of sharks. This all comes together to advise governments to sustainable shark populations. Coming closer to home and focusing on this part of the world because, well, it is home and because we need to utilize connections with nations in this area to protect them. Sharks move from one jurisdiction to another- there are no boundaries to them. We’re looking off the Florida Gulf coast at the abundance of species like blacktip sharks, great hammerheads and bull sharks to see their population status. This can be done with the help of population numbers, and satellite tags for movements.
TFUI: You also work with whale sharks in Mexico, no?
Hueter: I also work with whale sharks in Mexico, since 2003. Even discovered the largest aggregation of whale sharks- so far- off the Yucatan Peninsula, in Quintana Roo. We’re working with animals there to see their habitat needs and status in this part of the world compared to other parts. Currently, we are working with agencies and organizations to assess human impact on whale sharks, specifically in the sector of ecotourism. Hoping to develop a science-based approach for sustainability and not love these animals to death.
TFUI: Mote is also partners with OCEARCH, correct? You’ve been on a few trips with them, if I recall.
Hueter: Yes! We’re currently looking at the white sharks off the Atlantic coast; data like movement patterns, numbers, a sense of their health and physiology.
OCEARCH has also helped tracking them long-term and taking blood samples, as well as other biomarkers for their health.
TFUI: Looking at both past and present trips, what’s been your most exciting discovery or trip, then? That’s a lot to choose from!
Hueter: [laughs] It’s hard to just pick one or two or three! They’re all pretty thrilling. Diving with whale sharks is always exciting, though.
As a scientist, I love the thrill of discovery. You get swimming with whale shark or getting your hands on a great white shark. But then you get the discovery part. That’s really exciting.
Like, when we caught Lydia off of Jacksonville, FL in 2013. THAT was really exciting. In 40 years of studying those animals, it was the first live white shark I got my hands on.
TFUI: It must have been absolutely mind-blowing. They’re fantastic animals to see in the wild, so having them under your fingers must have been a treat.
Hueter: Yeah, it was. I guess, all papers kind of stand for themselves. All my times out at sea, on small boats and big ships, going after sharks. Those were all wonderful memories.
TFUI: Switching gears, what has been your “worst,” or rather, most frustrating experience in the field/lab? What did you learn from it?
Hueter: It’s all frustrating because it takes so long! [laughs] One frustration that we’ve had is that we use specific tagging technology to see where these animals are going. I’ve wanted to understand more about the habits of the great hammerhead, starting in Boca Grande, FL. In particular where females give birth to young, what migratory paths look like, [site fidelity], [if they are getting a] handle on learning to come back to feed on tarpon, etc.
TFUI: All very interesting points, if I do say so myself.
Hueter: I think so! It’s just turned out incredibly challenging because hammerheads are so fragile. You can say “Boo!” to them and they just kind of wig out. It’s challenging to learn from an animal that’s so fragile. We’re continuing to try. Come up with more elegant ways to get around the problem.
TFUI: As you guys develop new methods on better handling these more delicate sharks, will you apply these same guidelines on handling other sharks that may be a bit more… robust?
Hueter: Oh yes, of course. Definitely will use these methods on other sharks. I like to keep it simple, but will use all means necessary to ensure the health of the animal.
TFUI: I guess this leads into my next question, though I guessed you already answered if with, “great hammerhead.” If you could study one shark, which one would it be and what would you study?
Hueter: You can’t say that! [laughs] Oh, you can’t ask that! That’s like asking a father that had five children that he had to get rid of four of them and pick which to keep. [sighs] I’ve had the most fun with whale sharks. There’s still so much to learn about them. So long as you give me all the funding and resources!
TFUI: What would you like to learn next about them?
Hueter: Want to try to see where [the females are] giving birth. We’ve got an idea for it, though: M.O.R.P.H. “Mid ocean remote pupping hypothesis.” I’d also love to know how many of them there are, their various migration patterns, and how to [better] protect them.
TFUI: Well, going off of that: If 2015 could change one thing for sharks, what would you hope it would be?
Hueter: A global agreement that would have the endorsement of all shark fishing nations to take sharks seriously and stop fishing them unsustainably- directly or as bycatch. Of course, this includes [getting rid of] finning (Shark finning: the practice of catching sharks slicing their fins off and dumping the animal overboard, many of them still alive). Help rebuild shark populations on global scale.
TFUI: Okay, last question. And I want you to think real hard about this one: what piece of advice do you wish someone had given to you when you first started out?
Hueter: Take business courses- and learn Spanish instead of French! [laughs]
TFUI: Okay, I get the language bit. Mind elaborating on the business courses? I’ve asked this question a lot before and no one has said that!
Hueter: The world is a complex place. As a scientist, my generation was trained to work alone and “look into a microscope” kind of thing; focus on details of the science itself. We weren’t trained to work in teams, collaborate. We weren’t trained in all the aspects of running a scientific program ([build and] support it, connect with people, outreach). Fortunately, I came to Mote, where those sorts of things can be learned on the job and I embraced it. But others can find it difficult, and I understand it. But if you start at a younger age, and get some experience in running a business (you‘re running a business if you want to run a research program), [be] worldly, [and] it will serve you well.
Also! Don’t get all info from internet! Social media is great for networking, but it has its limits and pitfalls. Beware of those. And always, always, stand on the side of the facts rather than tweaking the facts to run your own agenda. All you’ve got is your reputation and once it’s been found out that you’re deceiving people with bad information… well, it’s done.
the fins united initiative would like to thank dr. hueter for his time
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
SEARCH BY CATEGORIES