When you think of a shark scientist, you don't normally think "India." But the fact is that the Indian region is important for sharks and their relatives. For example, there are six species of river sharks found in the world, and one of them (the Ganges shark, Glyphis gangeticus) is endemic to India. India ranks second after Indonesia on the global list of shark fishing nations. India is the world's third largest harvester of sharks. So it makes sense that they have conservationists and scientists- defenders, if you will- in this region.
That's where Shaili Johri comes in. Not only is she a shaker and mover (as a women in STEM in India and one of the growing number of shark scientists in the region), but she's doing important research and telling people about it through outreach and science communication to the general public and those who do the fishing- the fishing communities. TFUI founder Melissa and Shaili met while in Malaysia for a conference and she is a force to be reckoned with, y'all. We were lucky to catch up with Shaili and talk for this special Behind the Fins interview...
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in the marine sciences?
Shaili Johri: I grew up in India which is surrounded by vast oceans on three sides, and as a kid I remember being smitten by the ocean and its calm on family vacations. I was absolutely fascinated by the animal world and especially marine environments as seen on National Geographic and Discovery channels.
TFUI: Ooh, I think we all have been there!
SJ: Throughout my education I was fascinated by animal biology, genes and behavior and this culminated in my getting a PhD in Genetics. It is during my PhD that I realized I would be the happiest working in the field of conservation and applying my skill set to protect and conserve wildlife biodiversity. Marine environments are the most under explored spaces on the planet, and this has led to a huge data deficiency among marine species, especially sharks and rays, ultimately making marine species prone to over-exploitation. I chose to be a marine scientist due to my deep interest and the need for research and conservation in this area.
TFUI: We like that line of thinking- we definitely need more marine scientists. So, tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule is like.
SJ: My days are anything but a 9-5 job! On a typical day I find myself working for at least 12-14 hours, mainly because I love what I do and because research is an all-absorbing job.
TFUI: I feel as if many scientists can agree with that.
SJ: I also collaborate with people in very different time zones. On a given day I am in my lab at San Diego State University, CA, sequencing DNA or analyzing results or writing a paper or meeting with colleagues from 9 am to 6 pm. Occasionally we go out on field trips to sample skin microbiomes from wild leopard shark populations or to sample kelp microbiomes in San Diego. Before 9 am in the morning and after 6 pm in the evening, I am often on Skype or Whatsapp calls with collaborators in India or Australia. 2-3 months a year I am travelling internationally to conservation conferences and sampling sharks and rays in India. When I am not doing any of the above, I love hiking, cooking, travelling and spending time with my husband Anand and two kitties Chao and Jhumpa.
TFUI: Sounds like a busy schedule! Can you tell us a little bit about the research you do?
SJ: My research has three main objectives:
TFUI: And why is your research so important?
SJ: Our research plays an important role in reducing data deficiency among Chondrichthyes and in increasing public awareness about the important ecological role of these species in marine environments. We expect our work, both in the area of biodiversity surveys and community engagement, to help increase conservation and protection of Chondrichthyes in India. Many developing countries in Asia and Africa face the highest threats to Chondrichthyan species and it is important to ramp up research and conservation in these areas. I hope to enable researchers in developing countries, to undertake molecular research for wildlife conservation, using some of the tools we are developing.
A. Sharks and rays being salted for domestic and international exports. B. A 1300 kg CITES regulated Manta being towed from the landing site. C. Manta ray at the salting center. D, E, F. Spotted wedgefishes, torpedo skate and thresher sharks at landing centers. G. Scalloped hammerhead shark used for meat and fins. H. Drying shark fins. I. Criteria used to determine value of shark fins being explained by a trader.
TFUI: Fascinating stuff! Speaking of conservation, how do you find the state of Chondrichthyan conservation in the India region?
SJ: India is one of the top suppliers of Chondrichthyes globally and has no protections or fisheries regulations in place, with the exception of whale sharks, which are strictly protected. India is one of top biodiversity hotspots when it comes to Chondrichthyes and is also one of the most data deficient countries with respect to these species. Thus, chondrichthyan research and conservation have a long way to go in India. There have been attempts for a top down regulation of trade in Chondrichthyes, but these were ineffective and short-lived.
TFUI: Any reason why?
SJ: Fisheries need to be regulated with respect population stocks and these rules and regulations should be co-designed by the local, state and federal governments in collaboration with fishing communities and with input from scientists. And, importantly, these rules and regulations have to be followed and implemented. A sustainable chondrichthyan conservation plan can only be established in collaboration with stakeholders, governments and researchers.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about studying Chondrichthyans in this region?
SJ: It is the most rewarding to know that although we are a long ways from protecting Chondrichthyes, we are starting a dialogue in the right direction. It is rewarding to speak with school and college students in India and inspire the next generation of marine biologists and environmental scientists. When I get even 2 out of 100 students in a class excited about science and see their eyes light up when I talk oceans and sharks, that is rewarding!
TFUI: You can't hook them all and that's okay. Do you think people in your area have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
SJ: Most people whom we have been interviewing in fishing communities and govt. bodies do not relate well to the ocean, except that it provides them livelihood. The reason is a huge knowledge gap in understanding the ecological role of Chondrichthyes in the oceanic ecosystem and in maintaining millions of fisheries based livelihoods in India.
TFUI: So what can scientists and conservationists do?
SJ: The way forward, is to increase awareness and education through outreach activities at all levels, including fishing communities as well as local, state and central governments.
TFUI: What is the most mind-blowing Chondrichthyan fact you know?
SJ: That Chondrichthyes are so resilient that they have been around for about 500 million years
TFUI: Yeah, that is pretty out-of-this world, huh? Shaili, what advice do you have for anyone in India wanting to follow your foot-steps?
I was very excited to find out that there is a small but growing group of dedicated students who are pursuing marine biology and especially chondrichthyan research in India.
TFUI: What?! Ahh! That is so exciting!
SJ: I would advise students to explore their own potential, take the time to discover what they would love to do for the rest of their lives and pursue it, even if few peers share their interests. I would urge students to consider marine biology, fisheries and environmental policy related careers, as there is a lot that needs to be done and we need young minds engaging themselves in environmental issues. By taking up these careers they could make a big difference in marine conservation and environmental protection.
TFUI: So, what’s next for you?
SJ: That is a profound question!
TFUI: [laughs] We try.
SJ: We are publishing our first paper about a chondrichthyan species identification method using a handheld sequencer. In India, our next goal is to conduct outreach and awareness programs about chondrichthyan conservation within government bodies, in order to mobilize conservation efforts at the top levels. We will continue our biodiversity surveys as well as community engagement efforts to fill in knowledge gaps at community level as well. I will be applying for academic research jobs in the next one year.
TFUI: We wish you all the luck! Can't wait to see the paper when it's out.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK shaili FOR HER 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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