What's not to like about sharks and tagging of sharks? The correct answer is, "You're right, we love that kind of stuff!" Which is why you're going to love this next Behind the Fins interview we have for you: Phil Doherty! And not only does he tag sharks (basking shark tagging data was the basis of his PhD) but he studies a few other animals as well-- and these relationships they all have come together to create a healthy ecosystem!
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you for joining TFUI, Phil! Welcome to the Behind the Fins interview. First off: why did you decide to study the ocean and its marine creatures?
Phil Doherty: I think like many people who study the natural environment, it spawns from an enjoyment of nature
and then an increased level of intrigue from exposure to new environments and information. For me this came from my dad and grandad showing me wildlife documentaries as a child, in particular ones on marine animals. The ocean always seemed like a complete mystery, things are certainly not as they seem from the surface, and that interest to find out why and what is going on never left me and so a career direction was born.
TFUI: And what is your day-to- day schedule like?
PD: Unfortunately not all days can be in the field or working directly with your study species, but I guess that is what makes it so fun. A lot of my time is spent analysing data, making sense of what we have observed and writing it up. However, this can be quite satisfying as it is these data that tell us what is going on and I am partial to a good looking map.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are currently doing?
PD: I’m currently working on a few things: I am still working through data from our basking shark tagging project, which formed the basis of my PhD; analysing some turtle tracking data from the Caribbean; and working on a long-term dataset of underwater visual censuses, looking for trends in comparisons of protected areas versus non-protected areas. All this work is aimed at using spatially explicit information to update current understanding and apply appropriate management strategies if/when needed.
TFUI: Woah! That is some diverse work you are doing! And why is this all so important?
PD: I think this type of work is important as if we want to protect species, particularly mobile species, then we first need to know where they go, when they go there, and what they are doing once they get there. It may sound quite simple, but this is the basis on which we can identify species of conservation concern and try to provide potential solutions to alleviate pressures.
TFUI: Can you tell TFUI readers a little bit about what spatial analysis is and why it's important?
PD: Simply, spatial analysis is the application of analytical and statistical techniques to data that has a spatial component (i.e. latitudes and longitudes). Its utility is in adding context to data, for example if a trend is observed in the data then it is important to view the trend in respect to its location and what that might mean in terms of explaining the observed outcome.
TFUI: Now, Phil, you have done work on a myriad of animals: sharks, fish, turtles. Do you find all of these have a relationship in some way (for example, we know many elasmobranchs depends on fish and some eat turtles)? What would happen if any of these relationships went away (e.g. fish stock depleted, turtle populations plummeted)?
PD: This is an interesting topic, not one I have great experience of, but there will inevitably be relationships for all species that have shared space, and therefore resources. In terms of how these dynamics might change with depletion of one stock or another, I don’t know.
TFUI: I think that is a big question many people are trying to answer right now.
PD: There are lots of groups looking into these types of trophic shifts, and will likely depend on a species ability to adapt to any changes in their environment.
TFUI: Do you think MPAs are the best way one can help protect our oceans? I know you were part of the work putting evidence forward for basking shark protection. Tell us a little bit about that and your research with these elasmobranchs!
PD: Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for conservation, but I think the more we can learn about movements and behaviour of mobile species, the better understanding we have of requirements, drivers of movements, and timings of areas of occupancy.
PD: This will provide essential information on where and when is best to apply management strategies. All of this comes with the caveat that any protection status designated is only as good as its compliance and enforcement.
My PhD was part of a project in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) trying to test the potential efficacy of a proposed MPA in the Sea of the Hebrides, West Scotland. We used satellite telemetry to try and answer this and track basking sharks (we tagged 62 in total) within this area and further afield. We found that during summer months (when these sharks are frequent visitors to the west coast of Scotland, moving into surface waters here to feed on zooplankton) these sharks spent a large proportion of their time (84% of locations, and 90% overlap of core activity space) within the boundaries of the proposed MPA, with some individuals showing inter-annual site fidelity back to the proposed MPA area the following year (two sharks returned to within 30 km of where they were tagged). We were able to test the potential of this proposed MPA before any designation (this is still an ongoing process), which is not something that is often an option but it does allow for protected areas to be placed appropriately and hopefully with the best chance of providing the level of protection intended.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
PD: I would like to say yes, and I think that is mostly the case, but often our impressions of things can be biased by where we live and values of the people you surround yourself with. For example, where I live in Cornwall, people are very positive about keeping our wild spaces clean and intact, and there is a real community feel to ensuring this happens, but I don’t know whether this is the case for the entire UK. I do think things are moving in the right direction though; recently there has been a surge of interest in the amount of plastic waste that is entering our oceans, with many places all over the UK increasing awareness and taking steps to reduce waste, such as not using plastic straws, which can only be positive.
TFUI: What has been your whackiest field/lab experience?
PD: The first time I got into the water with basking sharks is something I’ll never forget, it’s difficult to imagine something so big being able to move so slowly and gracefully through the water. However, I think the whackiest experience I have ever had is during turtle tracking work in Gabon, Central West Africa, where we were travelling along the beach on a quad bike searching for leatherback turtles, when a hippo ran out of the trees in front of us and ran straight into the sea. I had never pictured a hippo swimming in the sea before that point, but gave us all quite a fright.
TFUI: In your opinion, what is the coolest piece of technology (or software) that marine conservation is currently utilizing and why is it #1 in your eyes?
PD: There are lots of very cool bits of kit out there at the moment, from cameras, to drones etc. I think (and Im likely a bit biased) that tracking technology is vital for ensuring conservation outcomes. We need to know when and where species occupy space, and importantly the proximity of these spaces to human activities. Miniaturisation and increased battery time for telemetry devices will allow for much more in-depth insight into repeated movements of animals, coupled with new technology, such as satellite tracking of fishing vessels, and computational capabilities to analyse this increased amount of data will make for some interesting findings in the near future.
TFUI: So what does the rest of 2018 have in store for you?
PD: As is the life of a scientific researcher I will be crunching through the data I have trying to share some interesting findings along the way, whilst striving to come up with the next project idea and funding. Hopefully this will all involve sharks in some context.
TFUI: We're excited to keep following your adventures!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK phil 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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