As this month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws I thought it only fitting to talk to a woman who has sustained a shark bite on her arm. Sarah Roberts set up The Bite Project three years ago to educate people about marine life and the environment.
Last year’s Lancashire Science Festival hosted a workshop set up by the organisation where Sarah spoke passionately about shark life and the impact that human behaviour is having on delicate underwater ecosystems.
The team behind the Bite Project have also set up This is Creature, an organisation dedicated to highlighting some of the big environmental challenges that we face. Blog Preston went to find out more about her fascinating work researching shark and animal behaviour, conservation and, of course, that shark bite.
When was the Bite Project set up? The Bite Project first materialised in January 2014 after throwing around a few ideas with friends over Christmas.
Who is involved in the project and what are their backgrounds? When the project began, it was just CJ Crooks and I. We first met in 2012, when we were writing up our dissertations. Whilst we attended different universities, coincidently we were both conducting behavioural studies investigating electrosense and odour reception in the lesser-spotted cat shark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and were having trouble with the equipment. We were actually introduced to each other by a scientist, Joel Kimber, who had published papers on the same subject, (I think he was a bit fed up of us hounding him with the same questions). A while after graduation, I travelled out to Shark Lab, where CJ was working as a media manager and met George Davis, Lauren Fear and a lot of great friends who have all contributed to The Bite Project so far.
What was the motivation behind setting up the project? We’d all done a few stints at field stations since leaving university and had just spent months (years for CJ) living on the same remote island, conducting research every day. We were familiar with published papers and we’d witnessed multiple camera crews staging documentaries, but when we returned home there still seemed to be obvious gaps between the science world and the information making it through to the general public. The most disturbing gaps were in the topics that we all felt needed the most attention i.e. current events causing catastrophic problems to ecosystems (e.g. overfishing, plastic pollution, the finning industry and ocean acidification). Having worked in outreach education, I knew how tricky these topics appeared and how depressing/daunting they could be to teach. However, as a population, we seem to have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude and if we don’t change our habits now, we are soon to be out of time. With this in mind, our aim is to develop new techniques to create public interest in these topics. Children are great to work with, as they are open to new information and have really inquisitive minds, but we also work with teenagers and adults and have even delivered workshops to retirement homes.
Why is education about marine life and the environment so important? When we initially set the project up, it was heavily focused on sharks, as that was the creature we all had in common. CJ (who co-founded the project) is a photographer and provided most of the images we used to teach. Some of the video footage is also his, so it made sense to start with the subject we knew best. It also helped, that sharks are such iconic ambassadors of marine health and children/adults all, at least, share a morbid curiosity in these species. But we don’t want to be restricted to just marine life. Air, land and sea are all connected, so it makes no sense to be heavily focused on just one environment. Shortly after developing The Bite Project, we set up ‘This is Creature’ (www.thisiscreature.com), the overarching brand. We are using this to house together The Bite Project workshops, our blogs from the field and Creature Books (starting with ‘Somebody Swallowed Stanley’). Right now, human as a species, are not synchronized with the environment and no longer live in balance with other creatures in the food chain. Our actions are changing the face of the planet and sadly not always for the better. However, whether we like it or not, our existence is very much dependent on a healthy environment and the huge diversity of creatures needed to maintain this. When you have devoted time to study this information and seen some of the evidence, it becomes impossible to ignore and there’s a strong sense of urgency to share this knowledge.
How can people get involved in conservation in this area? There are loads of ways to get involved in conservation, such as supporting a charity, building wildlife habitats in your local area, reporting sightings to Sea Watch or participating in a shark tagging trip with Liverpool Bay Marine Life Trust. However, one of the most important and useful ways to get actively involved is to make small changes to our routine. For example, when visiting the beach for a walk, instead of ignoring the plastic items or fishing line that have been dumped/washed up, pick them up and put it in the bin. We can also help by making a point to turn off electronic items when we’re not using them, making consumer choices (e.g. only buying sustainable fish and avoiding excessive single use plastics), recycling, up-cycling or by planting more trees. Most people will no doubt have heard this list before, but unfortunately, these tasks often come across as patronising or boring. In reality, if we all did them, we’d have a direct and positive impact on the environment. And let’s face it, without public participation, it doesn’t really matter what scientists solutions discover.
Sarah, you have a shark bite. How did it happen? When you are handling wild animals on a day-to-day basis, eventually accidents happen. In general, sharks are afraid of humans and no animal likes to feel trapped, but occasionally in the field, it was necessary for us to capture sharks and take scientific measurements before releasing them. I’d just removed a 1metre lemon shark from a gill net, where it had turned itself over and was in a state of tonic immobility (a trance like state which occurs when a shark is turned upside down). I’d underestimated how long it had been in that state for and was surprised when came back round a lot quicker than I’d expected. Sharks are particularly flexible as their skeletons are made from cartilage (the same material that makes our ears). This was demonstrated as the lemon shark turned its body 180 degrees and bit my arm whilst I was holding it, a mistake on my part. Needless to say, I let go and we mutually parted ways.
Why do sharks get such bad press? I think for the most part, humans have been top of the food chain for so long, we don’t have many natural predators left. In the western world especially, the risk of being eaten by another creature is almost a mythical threat, but it still remains a natural fear. Horror movies or scary stories, such as Jaws, have exploited this fear and turned it into a huge market. In addition, the media are now so well connected globally, that any rare incident can be published worldwide and blown out of proportion with false facts and biased statements. It is incredibly unlikely for a human to be attacked by a shark. We are actually more likely to be killed from falling out of bed or by a vending machine, however very few of us fear these items. The sad truth is, we all love a story and when a shark attacks a human, people want to hear about it. In reality, we are the real killers. It is estimated that humans kill over 100 million sharks each year, in comparison to an average of 5 humans that are killed by sharks.
Why are they necessary in the ocean? I think the simplest way of explaining this is to look at the food chain. Sharks are apex predators; they have evolved in the world’s oceans for 450 million years (since before the dinosaurs). They help to maintain balance in an ecosystem. By predating on the weak and ill they keep prey populations healthy and prevent them from expanding beyond their supplies. To elaborate, most prey species are adapted to produce offspring at an early age and continue to do so at regular intervals, to increase their chances of genetic survival. If we were to remove the predator from this equation, quite quickly the population of the prey would be greater than their food supplies. This has a knock on effect all the way down the food chain and is also known as trophic cascade. For example: Tiger sharks eat turtles which eat sea grass. When you take the tiger shark out this equation, turtles have no natural predators therefore their population would increase. Turtles eat sea grass, which takes time to grow. If the turtle population grows quickly, the sea grass will eventually run out. Of course tiger sharks don’t just predate on turtles and turtles aren’t the only creatures relying on sea grass as food. The cascade effect would spread in all directions throughout the food web- even to humans. Many people throughout the world have a diet that is primarily dependent on fish as their source of protein. Furthermore, some sharks eat coral eating fish such as parrotfish. Coral plays an important role supporting 25% of all species in the ocean and converting CO2 to oxygen. Coral is already in drastic decline due to human and climatic impacts and an increase in coral eating fish would speed up this process. The ocean ecosystem houses 80% of all life on Earth and sharks influence the whole of it. At present, over one third of all shark species are at threat of extinction. If the shark populations continue to decline in such a rapid way, then inevitably, we will all be affected.
What’s next for the project? Well, this last year has been quite unpredictable, but as I mentioned earlier we do not want to be restricted to one ecosystem, so the plans now are to expand on our knowledge and experiences and find the best outlets for sharing this. I’m actually about to head out to Limpopo National Park in South Africa to research dwarf mongoose behaviour and will be making a video blog for our website (www.thisiscreature.com) while I’m out. I’ve also written a number of children’s picture books and hope to make them available as soon as possible. ‘Somebody Swallowed Stanley’ will be featured at the Wildlife Trust’s Marine festival in Berkshire this August. We are working to develop new content for our workshop’s next year and will also be featuring two new bloggers over the Summer: Becca Lunnon, who will hopefully be sharing her experience of field research with Basking Sharks in the Isle of Man, and Megan McCubbin, who will be working in China at a rehabilitation centre for bears rescued from the medicinal trade.