Time to dive into our next SharkFluencer interview! We've got marine scientist and Beneath the Waves Research Associate, Brendan Shea - @brendandshea on deck and ready to answer some of your deep sharky questions.
"As a young kid, I always thought sharks were 'cool'"
Photo by: Diego Camejo @diegocamejo
I grew up north of Boston and as a young kid, I always thought sharks were “cool”, but I think things really changed for me when I started surfing in my teens. At first, it was probably a mixture of curiosity and fear, but once I was interested and started learning more, it quickly became my passion. After getting my MS in Marine Biology at Northeastern University, I began working with the marine research and conservation NGO Beneath the Waves.
Q:) If you woke up as a shark tomorrow, which species would you be and why?
Tiger shark. Tiger sharks are the ultimate survivors – they are incredibly resilient animals that can capitalize on a huge range of potential food sources from a diverse array of habitat types. They eat prey across all levels of the food web, and it’s thought they may play an important role in maintaining critically important seagrass ecosystems. Plus, let’s be honest, they are absolutely beautiful.
Q:) What actions or conservation milestones are you working toward? What’s an ultimate goal for you and your work?
Protecting sharks and their habitats through the best means we have – large-scale marine protected areas. I’m optimistic that our planet can achieve 30x30…to have 30% of our world’s oceans protected by 2030. We do a lot of work in The Bahamas, which is a designated shark sanctuary, and it is truly amazing to see what a healthy shark population looks like. I hope that my work can help inspire more nations to protect their waters in the same way.
Q:) Any shark research you are working on or have done that you'd want to share? Working with other people/groups that you want to bring awareness to?
I would definitely love to bring attention to Beneath the Waves, the research NGO I’ve been working with for about two years now. We use a range of cutting-edge tech to perform some incredibly impactful work in The Bahamas and in New England. I joined the group as a graduate student in 2018 and ran a study off of Cape Cod using baited remote underwater videos (BRUVs) to investigate how predation risk from sharks affects their prey. Still working with the group now and I plan to continue to for the long haul because I could not believe more strongly in the mission, and in the work.
Q:) Did you always want to be a marine biologist or did you change your mind along the way? In your opinion what makes a successful shark scientist/marine biologist?
As a kid, I certainly talked a lot about being a marine biologist, but after completing my undergraduate degree, I was eager to get some professional experience and took a job with an environmental consulting firm. I spent almost 6 years at the company, and really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t shake the urge to learn more about the ocean.
I think one of the most valuable things I gained from that job is perspective. When I went back to graduate school, I knew what I wanted and just how badly I wanted it.
Photo by: Diego Camejo @diegocamejo
I have only worked harder and harder since that point but it’s never felt like work. Which is a good thing, because I think that’s what makes anyone successful at anything – put in the time and work as hard as you can, and good things will happen.
Q:) What tools do you use in the field? Can you give an example of a 'day in the life' of a marine biologist? What are you studying, what equipment or techniques do you use to gather information that is aiding in conservation efforts?
One of the things I love about working with Beneath the Waves is deploying new and innovative technologies to study sharks. We use different types of tags, underwater cameras, submersibles, and more to gain as much information as we possibly can.
A lot of my own research focuses on the ecological role of sharks in their environments, in the hope that demonstrating how important sharks are to overall ocean health may advance conservation. Different ways we can study the ecological role of sharks include observing shark and prey behavior on underwater cameras (BRUVs), analyzing isotopes of different elements from blood and tissue, and tracking animal movements with acoustic tags and receivers. Days on the water are the best days of my life – working with the team, the animals, and the technology is exhausting but incredibly rewarding. But honestly, a typical “day in the life” is spent in front of the computer, working with data, reading papers, and writing!
Photo by: Léa Breistroff @lea.breistroff
We use a huge range of approaches, including acoustic and satellite tagging, underwater drop cameras, blood physiology, submersibles and more to study sharks and their habitats, both down in the Bahamas and near me up here in New England. This fall, I’ll be starting a PhD with Dr. Francesco Ferretti at Virginia Tech.
Q:) Have you found success in handling people that don’t understand or agree with conservation efforts? Have you found a way to get through to people/communities that may not care about sharks/the environment?
I live in a community (Cape Cod, MA) with long-standing ties to the fishing industry, including commercial, charter, and recreational fishers. As a conservationist and marine scientist working in this community, I run into plenty of stakeholders with opinions that conflict with my own.
Among other controversial proposals, I regularly encounter people who support things such as seal culls and shark nets. I think it’s important to resist the urge to just lecture, and to have a legitimate two-way conversation. I also try to steer the conversation towards the ecological and, where applicable, economic benefits of conservation measures.
Q:) What’s your proudest moment or greatest accomplishment in regard to sharks or conservation?
On the last field day of a successful, but very trying two-week research expedition where I served as the science lead, we were really hoping to find two large tiger sharks finish off our main research objective. We’d hit some obstacles over the trip, and I think we all felt the pressure on the way out that day. By the end of the day, we’d found a dozen sharks from four species, including three huge tigers and two great hammerheads, the first I’d ever seen. On the way back to port as I sat on the transom, I was pinching myself in disbelief of what we’d accomplished and in sheer wonder of the natural world - I will carry that feeling with me for the rest of my life.