Interview with an expert: David Shiffman on why sharks matter

Dr. David Shiffman is a leading shark conservation biologist and blogger currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We caught up with David to find out why these feared fish have such an undeserved reputation, their importance to the ecosystem and the ways researchers are protecting some of the most endangered species in the ocean.

Dr. David Shiffman’s research involves shark fisheries management, conservation policy, feeding behaviour and ecology of shark species

Hi David! Thanks for speaking to us about your work. Would you be able to describe a bit about your background and what you do?
I study shark conservation policy in North America as a PostDoc – sort of an apprenticeship between graduate school and being a professor. I’ve been fascinated by sharks as long as my family can remember, even though we grew up far from the ocean. I’m happy to be doing important research that contributed to more effective conservation plans for threatened shark species. I love learning from experts around the world.

What are your goals surrounding shark conservation and education?
Sharks are some of the most misunderstood animals on the planet and some of the most threatened. I want people to learn the truth straight from me and other scientific experts. I use my twitter account @whysharksmatter to answer people’s questions and share all kinds of shark information.

You spend time on social media, particularly Twitter, busting a lot of myths surrounding these great creatures. What are some of the more common misconceptions around sharks?
Sharks aren’t a threat to people- more people die falling off cliffs while taking selfies, and more people are killed by vending machines. If you get into the ocean, sharks are near you, but they don’t bother you. They know you’re there, but you’re not on the menu.

It’s comforting to know that humans are not on the menu, but why do they have such a bad reputation for being people-eaters?
People are afraid of the unknown and of big animals that eat us, but actually, we’re better off with healthy shark populations because they help to keep the food web in balance. They keep prey populations in check.


The team tagging a nurse shark as part of the research project

I have noticed some controversy surrounding Shark Week suggesting that it does more damage to the reputation of sharks than it does good by promoting their conservation. What are you your thoughts on this?
Shark Week is an amazing platform to talk about sharks, shark science, and shark conservation. Unfortunately, they fill a lot of time with fearmongering pseudoscience nonsense. No, there is no great white serial killer stalking California eating somebody every 2 years. No, there is no secret island full of giant great white sharks. And also, great white sharks aren’t the only sharks that exist! There are over 500 species.

What are the biggest threats to shark species? And can we mitigate these threats?

Overfishing is the single greatest threat facing sharks. Overfishing is the primary threat to sharks – quite simply because we are killing too many sharks of many species to provide for markets for fins and meat (and to a lesser extent other products). Fisheries need to be made more sustainable, and in cases where a species is in really bad shape, fisheries need to be granola restricted or banned. Sustainable fisheries are managed so that fishermen can fish, but can’t take so many animals that the population suffers.

Finally, can I ask if you have a favourite shark fact?
Yes! Greenland sharks can live for 400 years and can eat polar bears and reindeer. I have no idea how but [the remains of carcasses] are found in Greenland shark stomachs.

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