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‘Why sharks matter’: Q&A with author and shark biologist David Shiffman

Sharks in Hawaii. Image by Kimberly Jeffries / Ocean Image Bank.

  • In a new book, conservation biologist David Shiffman explores the importance of sharks to the world’s marine ecosystems.
  • An enthusiastic “deep dive” into the latest research, “Why Sharks Matter” also addresses the threats sharks face and what scientists, NGOs and the public can do to support shark conservation.
  • Mongabay caught up with Shiffman just before the May 24 release of the book.

In the introduction to his new book, conservation biologist David Shiffman quotes Senegalese forestry engineer and conservationist Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught,” Dioum says.

If anything is clear from Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator, it’s that Shiffman loves sharks (especially sandbar sharks, the subject of his master’s thesis). Just as clearly, he’s motivated to pass that enthusiastic affection along to his readers, drawing on the latest research to show how diverse, unique, misunderstood and just plain cool sharks are. As a writer, he delights in drilling into the vast variety of quirky behaviors and roles his study subjects play in the world’s oceans.

In doing so, Shiffman, currently a faculty research associate at Arizona State University in the U.S., is eager to spur readers into action aimed at protecting sharks. Still, the book is far from a generic laundry list of the troubles that we’ve brought upon these animals. He doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that many shark species face the threat of extinction as a result of the influence we humans wield over them and their marine environment. But Shiffman also holds a mirror up to how scientists, NGOs and shark aficionados approach conservation, and sometimes the reflection is less than flattering.

David Shiffman, author of Why Sharks Matter, is eager to spur readers into action aimed at protecting sharks. Image courtesy of David Shiffman.

To support shark conservation, Shiffman writes, scientists need to ask the right questions, acknowledge their own blind spots and embrace the interdisciplinarity of modern-day conservation biology. Advocacy groups should follow the science that’s pointing the way toward addressing the greatest threat to sharks today, unsustainable fishing, rather than the topics that will attract the most donations. And members of the public can educate themselves about how they can best make a difference.

In short, he’s asking those of us who want to help sharks to be discerning — when it comes to learning about the dangers sharks face, as well as how we respond — and to grapple with the uncomfortable truth that even the best intentions can sometimes lead to more harm than good.

Mongabay’s John Cannon spoke with Shiffman ahead of the book’s May 24 release. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Cover of Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator written by David Shiffman.

Mongabay: What made you want to write Why Sharks Matter?

David Shiffman: There are a lot of books about sharks, but I found that none of them really covered this topic. I do a lot of public science engagement on social media as well as in person, and I kept getting the same questions over and over. People would say, I’d like to learn more about this, [and] I’d have to recommend six or seven or eight different readings, one of which is a law school textbook that people aren’t going to read.

The book covers the science of why sharks are important. It covers the policy of all the different ways that can be used to protect sharks. It covers ways that people can get involved. It covers a list of scientific and nonprofit organizations that are already helping. It’s the book that I wished had already existed, written for a non-expert audience. It’s for shark enthusiasts, or scuba divers, or people who just like sharks and would like learn more about what’s going on with them.

Mongabay: You didn’t shy away from the scientific terminology. But at the same time, you put significant effort into making the technical accessible. Was that a conscious choice, to bring people into this scientific world?

David Shiffman: It was, yes. An interesting thing that I found, being a scientific researcher as well as someone active in this public science engagement, is that the way that experts talk about these topics is radically different from how they’re talked about on Twitter, in the shark enthusiast Facebook groups, [or] when I go give a talk at a local ocean conservation club. It’s not just different values that are in play. It’s wrong information that in some cases is willfully and maliciously shared by some bad actors on the fringes of the environmental nonprofit community. It’s unbelievable how fast that [misinformation] spreads, and so many people in the scientific community aren’t aware it’s happening. Many people in the shark-enthusiast community aren’t aware that they’re being, if not lied to, at least not being told what’s really happening. It was another major motivation for wanting to write this.

It’s just absolutely shocking to me how much wrong information there is about so many of these topics. [With] sharks specifically, I have colleagues who study misinformation and disinformation in much more controversial areas like climate change or GMO foods, and they’re shocked at how much wrong information is regularly shared on Twitter about shark conservation. So I wanted to make sure that the science is clearly explained [and] that the evidence is clearly laid out, but also that I explain how scientists gathered this data and why we do it that way, and why we don’t do it another way that you’ve heard of on Twitter, or on Shark Week.

A whale shark with remoras. Image by Cinzia Osele Bismarck / Ocean Image Bank.

Mongabay: How much trouble are sharks in?

David Shiffman: Many conservation challenges are very real, and I don’t ever want to minimize that. It’s a real problem. Bad things are happening, and things are going to get worse if we don’t do something.

Sharks are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates. The latest updates from the IUCN Red List shark [specialist] group has it that about a third of all known species are considered threatened with extinction. That’s really bad, but not every single species of shark is critically endangered and circling the drain.

The biggest threat facing sharks and their relatives is unsustainable overfishing. There’s no doubt about that. A hundred percent of threatened species have overfishing as one of one or their only threat.

[One of the main ways to deal with that is to] make fishing more sustainable. If the problem is we’re killing too many fish, kill fewer fish. We still have to have some fisheries because they provide food for the marketplace and contribute to food security. They provide jobs and contribute to livelihoods, especially in much of the developing world. This includes shark fisheries. Shark fisheries are a critical part of local food security and livelihoods.

A rabid minority of activists who largely operate online on social media say, “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as a sustainable fishery. We have to ban all fishing for sharks and for everything else.” That is not only not true, but it’s not helpful because we’re not going to do that. Devoting all of your energy towards a goal that’s not going to help, but also attacking the people who are really working to help and working toward solutions that really work, is not an especially helpful strategy, to put it mildly.

Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas. Image by Alex Rose via Unsplash.

Mongabay: You spend some time in the book talking about shark finning. I’m curious to get your thoughts on the complexity of that issue.

David Shiffman: Much of my experience comes from the United States and Canada, which [have] a different set of scientific and conservation infrastructure than some of the rest of the world. But it’s also where a lot of this nonsense activism is based. Just this week, I saw an online petition, and it said we need to ban shark finning in Florida. We banned shark finning in Florida in 1993. That is a petition that cannot possibly accomplish its goal.

The person will say, well, “I’m just raising awareness. It’s still helpful.” That’s not raising awareness. That’s sharing wrong information about what the problem is and what the solutions are. Shark finning is a real problem, but you would think from talking to some of these well-intentioned but misinformed activists that it is the only problem threatening sharks. It’s not and hasn’t been in many decades. The biggest problem is overfishing, which includes but is not limited to shark finning.

[The term] “shark finning” is also used wrongly as a synonym for killing any shark for any reason, as long as the fins are sold. That’s not what it means. It’s a specific fishing practice. It’s bad, and we shouldn’t do it. But in a lot of places, we’re not doing it anymore. It’s been slowly declining, and especially where I am in the United States, it’s been illegal for almost 30 years.

If you don’t know basic facts, such as the threat you’re trying to stop was stopped 30 years ago, maybe you shouldn’t be the one leading an organization. Maybe you should be volunteering to help an organization run by people who know what they’re talking about.

Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk at Hong Kong. Image by Cloneofsnake via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: I think we in the media bear some responsibility for the messages that pervade our society about sharks. What would you like to see more of in media coverage of sharks?

David Shiffman: I actually did a what’s called a media content and discourse analysis, which is tracking down everything that was written about a subject and scientifically analyzing it. The issue is not necessarily that any one individual piece of news has to cover every individual piece of a complex, nuanced subject. The problem is, in aggregate, almost all of them focus on the same tiny issue, and it creates the false impression that that’s a big issue. Shark finning and bans on the shark fin trade in the United States get much more media coverage than overfishing, which is a bigger threat, and science-based, sustainable fisheries management, which is a more widely backed solution with more evidence that it works. At the very least, I would like to see media coverage about shark conservation interview someone who is not affiliated with the fringe nonprofit group running the campaign. Just double-check with an expert who is not being paid by the people [who] are being talked to. That’s it.

That [also] means more scientists [and] more science-based managers need to be available to answer your questions. [We] need to put ourselves out there.

Mongabay: The book does point out times or places where scientists could do better when it comes to communicating and using their work for shark conservation.

David Shiffman: Many of the most effective conservation and management policy tools that are out there require detailed scientific data. You need to know what sharks are there, when they’re there, how big they are, how many of them there are, how many babies they have, and how often. Once you have all that, we can develop science-based management plans.

It’s almost a joke in the scientific community — the [use of this] phrase, “This data is important for conservation and management.” It’s a throwaway line lots of people put in their papers because they think it helps it get through peer review or makes it a better fit for a journal. If your data is important for conservation and management, you should be able to answer the following questions: What is the current law? Why does your data show that it’s inadequate? What should it be instead? If you cannot answer those basic questions, your data is probably not all that important for conservation and management. [It] doesn’t mean that it’s bad science, or you’re a bad scientist or a bad person. But there’s so many people that say they’re helping that are perhaps not helping. Whether you helped is a measurable thing.

Researchers from UNC Institute of Marine Sciences tagging a shark. Image by UNC Institute of Marine Sciences via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: In a way, you’re asking scientists to reach into a different discipline, to look at laws, to look at policy. In the book, you brought up Michael Soulé’s description of conservation biology from the 1980s as a multidisciplinary science. Does that fit with what you’re saying here?

David Shiffman: Exactly, yeah. Scientists have a very specific and technical skill set, and it can be brought to bear to help solve some of these conservation challenges. But it’s probably not going to be that useful if you just guess how to do it. If you were a scientist, and you wanted to perform a population genetic study, and you hadn’t done population genetics before, you would talk to your colleagues who know what they’re doing in that technical specific field. You would read textbooks. You would learn about it.

I don’t think every scientist needs to become an expert on international fisheries management. But you probably know someone who’s willing to answer your questions. I just did a study of [U.S.] shark fisheries management, and I asked managers, what do you wish scientists would do differently? One of the things that came up repeatedly is, before they do their studies, I wish they’d ask us what studies we need. We don’t necessarily need more information about a particular highly studied species in a particular highly studied area. That doesn’t mean you’re bad for doing it. It doesn’t mean you’re not a scientist, but it means it’s not going to help conservation that much. There are some species and some systems where one study could really make the difference. Scientists don’t know about these because they didn’t talk to the conservationist or the natural resource manager before they did their study.

Mongabay: The fact that this idea that every little bit helps isn’t necessarily true seems to come up frequently in conservation biology. It almost seems as if there should be a widely accepted “do no harm” principle like there is in medicine.

David Shiffman: It is a big problem, especially with something like sharks, where so many people love sharks and want to help. They don’t know what to do, so they just do something. They do the first thing that pops in their head after googling for five minutes, or watching a documentary that’s not based on facts, or following extremists and social media who share wrong information. I say, “Hey, It’s great that you want to help, but what you’re doing is not helpful, and here’s how we know. And here’s what it would be great if you would do instead if you really want to help.” They say, “Well, at least I’m doing something.” Yeah, that’s the problem. The thing you’re doing is not good. Doing nothing would be measurably better for the situation that you’re trying to fix than what you’re doing.

Sometimes, it takes policy tools off the table that could really work. [Or] it leads to threats or harassment against scientists or conservationists. So yeah, at least I’m doing something, at least I’m trying to help — that’s nonsense. Learn what you can actually do that would be helpful before you try.

A diver with a shark in shallow waters. Image by Jett Britnell / Ocean Image Bank.

Mongabay: I’d probably get pilloried on social media if I don’t ask you: What’s special about sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus)?

David Shiffman: If you follow #BestShark [on Twitter], you will see years of me talking about this species and years of my scientific colleagues making fun of me for choosing what they perceive as a boring shark to be the best shark.

Sandbar sharks are a very common species. They are [also] a very common aquarium species. If there’s an aquarium with a large shark tank, it probably has a sandbar shark in it. That means for millions of kids around the world, the sandbar shark is the first shark they ever see in their life. We know the concept of “ambassador species” from the aquarium and zoo world. A kid seeing their first shark can sometimes have that just “wow” transformative moment.

If you picture a shark in your head, it probably looks an awful lot like a sandbar shark. They’re sort of the classic, base model of shark. And despite not having crazy adaptations, like a hammerhead, or crazy patterns, like a tiger shark, they’ve contributed significantly to our understanding of the ocean because they’re found near marine labs. They’ve contributed significantly to public education because they’re a common aquarium species. I love them.

A sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) at the Georgia Aquarium. Image by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Banner image: Sharks in Hawaii. Image by Kimberly Jeffries / Ocean Image Bank

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citations:

Shiffman, D. (2022). Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator. JHU Press.

Shiffman, D. S., Bittick, S. J., Cashion, M. S., Colla, S. R., Coristine, L. E., Derrick, D. H., … Dulvy, N. K. (2020). Inaccurate and biased global media coverage underlies public misunderstanding of shark conservation threats and solutions. iScience, 23(6), 101205. doi:10.1016/j.isci.2020.101205

Shiffman, D. S., Elliott, J. N., Macdonald, C. C., Wester, J. N., Polidoro, B. A., & Ferry, L. A. (2022). The next generation of conservation research and policy priorities for threatened and exploited chondrichthyan fishes in the United States: An expert solicitation approach. Conservation Science and Practice4(3). doi:10.1111/csp2.12629

Soulé, M. E. (1985). What is conservation biology? BioScience, 35(11), 727-734. doi:10.2307/1310054

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