If you're on Twitter, you've seen @madforsharks taking the platform by storm with her research and science communication outreach. So is it any surprise she is our next featured scientist for Behind the Fins? Dive on it as TFUI Founder Melissa talks to Madeline about her work and what she hopes for the future!
The Fins United Initiative: Thanks for joining us, Madeline. First off: why did you decide to study the ocean and its marine creatures?
Madeline Cashion: Unlike many marine biologists, I didn’t grow up by the sea. Yet, I was always drawn to books about the ocean, especially those featuring predators. I used to write poems and make magazine collages featuring predators like sharks, crocodiles, and big cats.
MC: As I went through school, however, Biology classes were never very easy for me. Instead, I was more interested in math, language classes, band (I played trombone), and choir. I thought my relatively lower grades in the sciences meant I wouldn’t be able to study the ocean in university, but my mum pushed me to apply anyway, and I got into Marine Biology at Dalhousie University! University classes are so very different and more fun than grade school (at least in my experience!) so if you or someone you know is jaded about science because of high school, don’t give up!
TFUI: Totally agree.
MC: I was constantly fascinated during my undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, especially in my ecology and ichthyology classes. To be invested in what you are doing, it is incredibly important to feel awe-inspired a significant portion of the time.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are currently doing?
MC: I just defended my master’s thesis at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. This means that I presented and answered questions about my research in front of my university department and a committee of professors who are experts in my subject – sharks, rays, fisheries, and conservation. My research was all about exploring what information we have about shark and ray fishing in the Mediterranean and Black Seas and estimating which species have been caught over the last 65 years. I also assessed whether the conservation and fisheries regulations in place are working for sharks and rays.
MC: As a whole, Mediterranean and Black Sea countries have caught around 5.5 million tonnes of sharks and rays from their own waters since the year 1950. This is according to the fisheries catch database reconstructed using historical sources by my research group – the Sea Around Us. To visualize this weight, think of about 89 000 adult men, nearly 1 000 elephants, or 40 blue whales (the largest animal ever!). The problem that my research addresses is that for 80% of this catch, we don’t know what species was caught!
TFUI: WOAH, WHAT?!
MC: I assessed which countries have been the best at reporting their catch to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and which countries have improved or worsened over time. I also estimated which species and how much of each has been caught by each country and fishing gear type (for example: bottom trawls or long lines) every year. Stay tuned for the research papers, which I’m currently in the process of submitting to journals. I can only share the details and results once the research has been reviewed by other marine scientists!
TFUI: Excited to see the research you publish! Why do you think your research is so important?
MC: Unfortunately, one of the reasons that it can be so difficult to effectively conserve sharks and rays, and manage their fisheries, is that we don’t know enough about what is being caught.
TFUI: Very true.
MC: It’s essential to have an idea of which species are being caught, how much is being caught, and which countries are catching them in order to efficiently protect sharks and the fisheries upon which many people’s livelihoods and diets rely. A huge amount (some estimate half) of the global shark and ray catch is bycatch, which means that they aren’t targeted but instead are captured in nets or on lines that are trying to catch other species of fish. For example, in some offshore longline fisheries blue sharks are caught four times as much as the target species, which are typically swordfishes and tunas. We know that because we have data, usually from on-board observers who identify and write down what is being caught. There is very little information like this for sharks or rays in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, even though there are many different species and fisheries there, which makes conservation efforts difficult. Over half of the shark and ray species in the Mediterranean Sea are threatened with extinction (according the IUCN Red List) and many are consumed in the region, which is why it is so important that we start to get a handle on the catch!
TFUI: You reached out to Bill Nye in regards to #BillMeetScienceTwitter and told him you looked at what species make up the vast tonnage of "sharks" and if they're threatened. Did he respond?
MC: I didn’t personally hear from Bill Nye about my #BillMeetScienceTwitter tweet, but I would love to talk about shark fisheries and catch data on his show! Although, I’m not sure that my research topic would be a priority for him ;).
TFUI: If you were on his show, how would you explain this to the audience?
MC: If I had the chance, perhaps I would make an analogy to something that might be more familiar to many people. For example, bear hunting is legal in many places in North America. First of all, bear hunting is regulated so that people can only hunt a certain number of bears at a particular times of the year, in particular places. This is similar to some well-managed fisheries that have science-based catch quotas and sometimes seasonal and/or spatial closures. If you are to hunt a bear, you must report what species, how many, and where you hunted to the government. This is not the case for many fisheries in many countries, and reporting is especially rare for catches of species like sharks and rays. Shark and ray catch is often not reported at all or it might be reported vaguely, such as to the taxonomic specificity of Class Chondrichthyes – which tells us only that some unknown species of shark, and/or ray, and/or chimaera (ratfish), were caught.
MC: In the bear hunting analogy, this would be equivalent to reporting a kill of Class Mammalia…which is very vague and only tells us that some unidentified species of mammal has been hunted. Now, you could argue here that taxonomic classification differs across groups in terms of the scope of different taxa, but the point is that black bear population must be managed differently than, say, beaver populations, despite being in the same taxonomic class, Mammalia.
TFUI: How was defending your thesis? Scary? Exciting?
MC: Yes and yes! By the time that monumental day finally arrives I think most students feel pretty ready to get to it and get it done. It depends, of course, on who sits on your supervisory committee, but I had four great professors who were excited about my research.
MC: All the questions were fair. Many of them were actually fun and sparked discussions about sharks, rays, and fisheries in general! For example, my departmental examiner, who doesn’t study sharks and rays, asked why we insist on referring to the modified pectoral fins on rays as “wings”. He pointed out that they don’t actually fly! To which I argued that they kind of DO fly, just not in the air, although eagle rays beg to differ…
MC: Overall, my defense was awesome. It seemed to me as though the whole of the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries was there, which was terrifying when I first started talking but by the end I could feel everyone’s support, interest, and love. These formal academic events don’t have to be dreaded beasts for us to conquer, but can instead be momentous celebratory milestones!
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
MC: I like to think that in Canada we have the luxury of choice and access to resources to make sure that our role in the natural environment is as positive as possible. Unfortunately, it is the ‘developed’, wealthy countries such as my own that are actually the culprits behind the deterioration of our shared planet. Even for those of us who try to tread lightly, there isn’t much choice in many aspects of our lives, such as the food, clothing, and other products that we have access to and can afford. The other side of the coin however, is that people are more aware than ever of the problems we’re facing and there are definitely opportunities in Canada to make a difference.
TFUI: How so?
MC: For example, very soon Vancouver is getting our first zero-waste grocery store, “Nada”, which was started by a marine biologist who wanted to make a change in our food options! I’m also incredibly stoked about the questions and discussions I get from the young kids I teach through Sea Smart School and Ocean Wise (at the Vancouver Aquarium). These kids have grown up with messaging of environmental doom and gloom and they are always pushing for solutions and optimism, especially when it comes to our ocean. How else do we truly make progress? Canada is in the process of revamping our overarching marine policy – the Fisheries Act – and the proposed changes look promising!
TFUI: What has been your most exciting discovery/trip?
MC: While I didn’t do fieldwork for my master’s research, I have been on some awesome trips over the years. One of the best and first was during a course in my undergraduate at Dalhousie University where I was super fortunate to go out to sea with the Ocean Tracking Network to tag blue sharks! The Ocean Tracking Network uses this information to find out where blue sharks live, eat, mate, and pup, so basically to learn anything and everything about these animals. One of the instructors, then-PhD student Brendal Townsend, told me that there’s nothing quite like sharing a long look directly in the eye of a shark, especially a blue shark, and she couldn’t have been more right.
MC: The first blue shark we caught was a gorgeous female, over 2 meters long. While Brendal was tagging her, I edged over to see her face more closely and it was surreal, I wish I had a better photo. That trip was also the first time I caught a shark, tagged a shark, or even touched a shark, so it remains a highlight of my career.
TFUI: Let’s talk about the importance of female empowerment in the workplace. Do you have any female mentors or anyone you looked up to who helped lead your career?
MC: I’ve been fortunate with my mentors so far, which includes a cast of awesome women. Here I’ll talk about the few who really set me on my to science early on. As I mentioned before, Brendal Townsend was and remains an important influencer for me. For the moment I met her I could just tell that she was motivated by respect for sharks and the ocean, which is how I approach my science. Then there was my undergraduate thesis supervisor, Dr. Tamara Romanuk. Anyone who took her class, ‘Diversity of Life’ can tell you that she was one of the most awe-inspiring professors you could hope to learn from. The name of the course alone draws you in, but then she would kick off each lecture with some gorgeous footage (often from BBC’s Blue Planet), just playing as students quietly filled the auditorium. I knew I had to work in her lab. I volunteered for her Food Web Ecology Lab for two years before starting my thesis research on climate change and acidification in my fourth year. She was always an advocate for me and her other students, which can be difficult to find in busy professors! Her PhD student at the time, Grace Murphy, was my direct mentor in those days. She was, and still is, a champion of my work, training me and being a friend, while also being a sound (okay…brutal) editor of my writing.
MC: She’s now killing it as a postdoc, studying the impacts of human-caused stressors on seagrass ecosystem health here in Canada!
TFUI: So cool! How do you think we can use our platforms to make the science world a better place (e.g. more inclusive and diverse) for women?
MC: It’s important to make sure that photos, videos, stories, and science from women are visible and abundant. Perhaps more important though, is working with individuals on a deeper level (like mentoring!) to make sure that girls and women get the opportunities and recognition they deserve. It makes a world of difference to have a mentor who believes in you and can help you get where you need to be. As a young person it’s so empowering to know someone who you can be candid with and ask questions that you suspect are stupid or naïve (but probably aren’t at all). Chances are, it’ll take more than seeing a woman scientist in a movie to actually get girls, especially from diverse backgrounds and countries, to pursue a career in STEM. This has to be a starting point, since women represent only 29% of the science research and development workforce, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics worldwide average. Unfortunately, once women are in STEM fields, they have a higher rate of falling through the cracks. Here’s a very recent example from a study by Leonora King and colleagues (2018) of the diversity at a Canadian geoscience conference:
MC: This leaky pipeline leaves us with gender imbalances increasing with seniority. Some of this is structural, especially when it comes to the systems that exist (or don’t…) for mothers and families. This is changing, but the we need advocates and allies to show that it’s about time to support everyone. In a recent professional meeting I attended, one older man complained about contributing financially (in society dues, and we’re talking about an extra $2 a year) to support childcare at our annual conference, since he already has adult children and won’t benefit from that service. I was shocked, but then relieved as the rest of the society objected – including people who don’t have young children. Things are changing and I’m happy to say that by the time I decide to have children I’ll be able to bring them to many marine science conferences. This means that I won’t be missing the cutting-edge news in my field, as countless mothers have before me.
TFUI: AGREED. What was some advice you wish you had gotten at the beginning of your marine science career?
MC: The most useful advice I have is that there is no blueprint for how to participate in marine science. Everyone takes a completely different path and the diversity of paths is key to creating the mosaic of expertise needed to study and help our ocean. We need all sorts of social scientists, anthropologists, biologists, chefs, economists, physicists, communicators, statisticians, chemists, philosophers, artists, geographers, policy experts, politicians, and more. If an opportunity is exciting to you, go for it! If there are specific people who you would like to emulate, or simply who inspire you, ask them what they did and what they wish they had done. You know yourself better than anybody, and it’s never too late to start something new, change it up, take a break, or develop your own skills. For example, I would like to be better at spatial data, mapping, and statistics, so I’m planning to start a GIS course soon!
TFUI: Good luck!
MC: Also, I’ll tack on a common sentiment arising in the STEM community lately – failure is normal and essential. You cannot and will not succeed in ever endeavor. Roll with the punches and remember that every life and career develops in totally different ways.
TFUI: What's next for you?
MC: The truth is, I’m not completely sure yet. I am applying for lots of awesome marine conservation jobs all around the world right now, and I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing! For now, I’m looking forward to graduating, getting my research published, and then having some summer adventures here on the unreal coast of British Columbia.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK madeline FOR HER TIME and we CAN'T WAIT TO SEE WHAT'S IN STORE FOR HER!
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:
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