I’ve just returned to our rustic dwelling in remote Závora, Mozambique after a ‘fintastic’ conference in Cape Town: the Southern Africa Shark & Ray Symposium. It was my first conference as a Masters student where I presented on both of my projects: 1) reporting on the population of reef manta rays in Závora and 2) investigating the functions of cephalic fins (see my other PassioInventa article here). I was pleased to tick that little benchmark off in my career, but the most rewarding part of this conference was learning and seeing the incredible research and conservation efforts happening along this extremely biodiverse and threatened region: The Southern African coastline.
This coast, including South Africa and Mozambique, is home to at least 117 species of shark and 79 species of ray, what we in the marine science world collectively call elasmobranchs. A plethora of habitats can be found here, including kelp forests, temperate rocky reefs, estuaries, upwelling zones, coral reefs, mud flats, and more.
The many environments of the South African coastline.
Despite this incredible abundance and diversity, human impacts such as direct fishing for the shark fin trade as well as fisheries bycatch from longlines, gill nets, and trawling have devastated Southern African populations of elasmobranchs. The symposium was an action packed few days of learning, celebrating the wonderful marine life we have, and discussing the essential steps that need to be taken to secure a future for our beloved, threatened sharks and rays. But the most remarkable component of the symposium was the theme: collaboration, brilliantly stated at the commencing keynote presentation by renowned shark biologist Alison Kock.
In light of this theme, I reflected on this word a little. It’s a word that has been on my mind since starting this path as a young elasmobranch researcher/marine conservationist. The question as it appeared to me was always why. Why aren’t people collaborating in a field where animals are so terribly, horribly threatened? Why is there so much wasted effort in avoiding this collaboration? And more importantly how can we do more?
Dr. Kock initiated a crucial discussion of what the main barriers to collaboration in science are: data hoarding (or the refusal of some scientists to share their work and findings), a lack of respect and understanding of other scientists, and miscommunication. Each of these is completely valid, but I believe the underlying root preventing collaboration today is competition. Competition in the sciences is intense, and, especially in fields like conservation, it provides a huge barrier to collaboration, slowing our progress.
We are all guilty, and often proud, of being competitive. It is something that is ingrained in our nature as primates and is learned as we grow up: we must get the best grades, be the best at sports, win awards, have the most qualifications, the list goes on. And this competition is often beneficial - it challenges us, and we strive to be better because of it. It makes sports more fun, achievements more rewarding, and inventions and technology advance more quickly. But when it comes to conserving threatened species, competition can and does hinder us.
I understand, of course, why competition in science exists. I’m a MSc by dissertation student at the University of Cape Town and hell, it’s stressful- you put your life and soul into your dissertation on which your degree depends on, and the last thing you want is someone taking that work from you and publishing it or taking credit for it. I can only imagine the pressure felt by PhD level students and active researchers in the field, whose careers often hinge on their ability to publish “novel” work, and therefore keep their research tight to their chest.
Furthermore, the competition for funding between students, nonprofits, scientists, and conservationists is intense, and ultimately all end up struggling for money. Then on top of that, our primal “ego” is at play: we want to be the first to do something, the best at something, and receive credit for discoveries. It makes sense that this competition is present, but when it comes to conservation, we must minimize it to see any real progress. We need all hands-on deck for this conservation crisis.
Competition results in us keeping separate databases, keeping our work private, and spending more time to finish a project than we would need to if politics between organizations and people didn’t get in the way. It prevents us from putting data in open access, which would advance our fields much faster and more effectively. This would allow scientists to analyze each other’s data, give advice, discuss options and future steps, and ultimately create a larger and cohesive community in the marine conservation/science world. But this is still something we are working towards, and many people are not yet on board.
Instead of striving towards keeping separate databases, hoarding information and data, dividing organizations through politics, and promoting distrust, we can put this energy towards building a wider community and developing large-scale projects that will have a global impact: such as these global, collaborative studies on sharks and fisheries and manta/devil rays. These studies combined the efforts of experts around the world to answer enormous questions and achieved real success. For example, the collaboration of multiple research institutions studied manta/devil ray populations and were able to identify them under worldwide conservation status as well as develop research strategies for an entire family of rays. Studies such as these may result in increased Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), policy changes, and ultimately the increased protection of species.
This conference was a refreshing departure from that strangely competitive nature of the conservation world. Everyone wanted to help each other out, share ideas, data, and equipment. Wild Oceans even held a forum to bring in all stakeholders for a discussion on research and policy priorities, which Nakia Cullain (director of Marine Action Research) and I were lucky enough to attend.
Some images from my time on the African coastline, including a run-in with a humpback whale that breached 20m from our boat in Závora, the opportunity for me to freedive in the aquarium tanks during the gala dinner at the Southern Africa Shark and Ray symposium, my supervisor, Nakia, and I presenting, and some qualities conference-goers decided make a good collaborator.
In turn this theme allowed me to reflect on how grateful I am for the current collaborations I am part of in my studies. I am proud to be a part of a collective group of professors and students at University of Cape Town in which we all learn from and support one another. My supervisor Charles Griffiths spearheads this through joining students together through tea times, dinners, field trips, and data discussions, allowing us to have a more holistic and meaningful student experience.
I’ve also been lucky to collaborate with Drs. Rob Perryman and Andrea Marshall on cephalic fin studies and remote camera footage. Nakia Cullain, my supervisor at MAR, is also a collaboration expert, always willing to share her data on manta rays, smalleye stingrays, leopard sharks and humpback whales. My collaborators and I realize that these efforts go towards the greater good of conservation. Whatever field or career you are in, I encourage you to happily reflect on your current collaborations – we can always do more.
Yesterday on my remote cameras I collected some extended footage of some very interesting lobster behavior - what should I do? Send it to an expert in that field. It’s invaluable data, and much better used than sitting on my hard drive for years! In this way, anyone can assist science, and can take part in crucial efforts like conservation.
We are all guilty for participating in deeply rooted competitive tendencies. All of us have experienced this at some stage. But I think we can let this go, for the sake of the animals and our planet. We must communicate, connect with one another, ask each other questions, answer each other’s questions. Combine data, share data. Work together on research projects, education outreach, the establishment of conservation tactics, and boosting public awareness. Share ideas, learn from one another, support one another, and guide each other. Listen to understand, not to respond. Offer constructive criticism. All these small suggestions are easier said than done, but I can affirm that we can all strive to take baby steps if we haven’t already done so.
Each one of us on this Earth, in and outside of our field, has something to offer, and something one can learn and grow from. This is one of the main reasons I am proud to be a part of PassioInventa. This platform connects young scientists from all fields, allowing us to learn from each other’s work and share it with our community. I saw a refreshing change in perspective within the shark and ray community at this conference, and I am confident in the work we will achieve through these collaborations. I am delighted to be a part of this passionate, knowledgeable, adventurous community that is determined to secure a future for elasmobranchs, and by extension, for our oceans.
Thanks to all that continue to inspire me including my parents, family, friends, professors, colleagues, and dive buddies. Thank you to the continued support for our research in Závora: Marine Action Research, Závora Lodge, and Formech Inspire. May you all find someone to collaborate with today and every day.