Podcast: Biting back against shark myths

21 May 2018

They’re at the top of the food chain, they can't get cancer, and they’re out to eat us – or maybe not. UQ alumnus and adjunct fellow marine biologist Dr Blake Chapman takes the bite out of shark myths and explains how important sharks are to our environment.

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Transcript

Dr Blake Chapman: Sharks are just so misunderstood. We’re told to fear them, but we don’t understand them, we don’t know what is happening. And I need to make a difference, I need to get out there and teach people about this because we just don’t get it. Ever since then I’ve had a passion for sharks, and have really tried to just learn more about them so that I could help to educate others on them.

Belinda McDougall: Welcome to UQ ChangeMakers, a podcast series where we interview some of the most influential and inspiring members of the UQ community. My name is Belinda McDougall.

Katie Rowney: And I’m Katie Rowney. In this jaw-some episode we chat with shark expert and marine biologist and UQ graduate, Dr Blake Chapman.

Belinda: On top of her love of marine life, Blake is passionate about science communication and creative writing, and has managed to combine these two loves with her book titled ‘Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear’. Blake, welcome.

Blake: Thank you

Belinda: Okay, now let’s start with the book. Can you tell us about it, your research, and how you got interested in this topic?

Blake: I’ve actually been interested in the subject for quite some time now, so the book was really exciting, and a great way for me to explore it a bit further. I, it challenged me, actually, to really look at it from a total perspective. So I’m used to looking at the statistics and the science around sharks and more recently shark attacks, but the book encouraged me to look at things like legislation and mitigation measures and really most excitingly, talk to a number of people who have been affected by shark attacks in some way.

Katie: The book was obviously the accumulation of years of research, but what first drew you to the topic of sharks?

Blake: I had a real interest in sharks, I think when I was a teenager I watched an episode of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel as most American teenagers do. So in this episode they were portraying the white shark as almost the victim, and definitely the underdog in this scenario, and they were saying that the seal was incredibly, heavily armoured and had a lot of defences against it. And so this poor shark was just trying to gain a meal, and it was hungry and it needed to eat, whereas the seal had these monster teeth and claws, and was trying to go for it. And so I remember thinking, ‘Oh, sharks are just so misunderstood. We’re told to fear them, but we don’t understand them, we don’t know what is happening, and so I need to make a difference, I need to get out there and teach people about this because we just don’t get it. And so, ever since then I’ve had a passion for sharks, and have really tried to just learn more about them so that I could help to educate others on them.

Katie: So you’re basically a shark advocate?

Blake: I’m hoping to use education and understanding to advocate for what’s actually happening. So I’m an advocate for reality in terms of sharks and shark-human interaction.

Katie: Now our listeners might have picked up that you have a bit of an accent, originally from America. How is it different, shark culture here in Australia versus America?

Blake: I think that sharks are definitely a big thing now, in America, but it’s a very different situation, what we see here with some of our very large sharks that often cause serious trauma or even fatality as opposed to America which, in most instances, their bites are quite minor. So we do have a slightly different culture here in regards to the sharks that we see.

Katie: And is there a particular country that has more sharks or more shark attacks? Because I know Australia kind of likes to play up its reputation as having so many dangerous animals, we kind of hang our hat on being really tough and surviving all these wild drop bears and sharks and things like that, but are there actually other countries that perhaps, should have more of a fear than we do?

Blake: Well Australia definitely has reason for that claim, while I can’t comment on drop bears, except that they are tragically scary and I’m terrified of them, just kidding.

Katie: Keep the myth alive!

Blake: Yeah, absolutely, I have to send that back to America, be scared! Australia, while America sees by far the most number of bites every year, Australia is second, generally, and we do have not always the most fatalities, but we’re up there in the number of fatalities. So Australia is definitely a major hotspot for shark bites, along with South Africa and Reunion Island, and up until quite recently Brazil as well.

Katie: Looking at the statistics, there’s been 15 confirmed attacks in Australia in 2017, 88 attacks worldwide, are shark attacks increasing in frequency, and if so, why?

Blake: They are increasing, and this is something that’s really important. I never want to say that they’re not increasing, and I never want to downplay the significance of what could come out of the shark attack. But what we have to realise is that the human population is increasing, and this is a major, major component which is leading to the increase in shark bites. So the human population is increasing at a rate greater to the number of shark bites. Other things are changing as well. We have better technology, so we’re in the water more often, new water based sports and recreational activities. So all these things are putting humans into the sharks’ environment more. So it’s completely logical that there is a correlation in increasing shark bites. The other thing is that there’s another, there’s a variety of anthropogenic factors that are also similarly increasing the overlap between sharks and humans, so we might be changing the environments that these animals live in, and if we restrict their access to say, a river mouth, in the case of bull sharks, then we have to expect that those animals that can no longer access that environment that they’re used to going to are going to move somewhere else. And that might mean that they more somewhere to where there’s a greater human population.

Belinda: Shark attacks, are they mostly unprovoked, and I suppose the other thing is to explain the difference between unprovoked and provoked. Because I can’t imagine anyone goes into the water with the goal of you know, stirring up a bit of trouble with a shark.

Blake: You might be surprised. But the differentiation between provoked and unprovoked is very important, and it’s critical in analysing shark attack statistics. So unprovoked shark attacks or shark bites are when the human does nothing to stir the animal. So in a provoked instance, that might mean a diver going in and pulling on a shark’s tail, or trying to ride a shark, or in some cases even fishing and stimulating the shark, and then drawing it in with the bait. So those are all things that provoke that could bring on this bite, so the human is in a way, almost inviting it, if you want to look at it that way. Unprovoked is when a person is just doing their own thing, not having any interaction with the animal, and the animal comes to the human. So it’s a really interesting question if you want to look at which one occurs more often. Shark attack statistics record unprovoked bites. So they will assess cases, and sometimes they determine that the case was provoked. If you were to look at those statistics, most of them are going to show unprovoked. And so it looks like the instance of unprovoked bites is much higher that provoked, but I think that a lot of times provoked bites don’t get recorded, because as you say, someone isn’t going to want to say ‘I went in to try and hug a shark, and I lost an arm’. They’re going to be up for a Darwin Award, and they’re not really going to want to be telling people about that, or being ridiculed by their colleagues if they’re working in an aquarium or out in the field doing research. So those types of bites don’t often get recorded.  

Belinda: What is the level of fatalities though because we think a shark attack always ends in a fatality, but it doesn’t, like you keep using the term bite rather than attack.

Blake: Yeah, there’s some really key terminology here that I think that we need to get into mainstream media. But more, and that relates to bite versus attack, I don’t want to say attacks don’t happen, because if I sit back and think about some of these instances, I would be saying attacks; but the vast majority of the time they are bites. So of those 15 bites in Australia that you mentioned before in 2017, one was fatal. So that’s about 6%. It’s generally less than 10% that we see in Australia, so there’s generally one to two fatalities in a year, and ten to 20 bites. So around six, always less than, or mostly less than 10%. Worldwide there are five out of those 88 bites in 2017, so about 5%. And that’s sitting pretty constant over the last few years. And what’s really interesting, what’s really important is that the fatality rates are dropping significantly. So even if you look at the ten year decadal average between 2007 and 2016, so very, very recent, the fatality rate was about 11.5%. So what we’re seeing now is less than half of the most recent decade. So they’re dropping significantly over this time. And if you look at the early 1900’s, the statistics are about 60% fatality. So we’re making real progress in this space. Our technology is getting better, our response time is getting better, medicine is getting better, and just awareness. We hear a lot about these things in the media, and a lot of times scientists argue that the media is really perpetuating this fear, and there’s a lot of negatives that can come out of all this shark attack media. But we know about it, so we’re being more prepared, and that is a really good thing, and that too is contributing to the decrease in fatalities.

Belinda: And also we always hear that term. ‘man-eater’, and it’s most probably a word you hate. I suppose, set the record straight, because there are hundreds of species of sharks, but how many really are attacking sharks, or sharks that have been recorded to attack humans?

Blake: Very few. I think that according to the International Shark Attack Files, I think there’s about 34 that have been definitively documented. So there are going to be cases that these shark attack files don’t collect, we can’t get everything, but even if it’s 34 or 40, it’s a very small proportion of the 500 plus species of sharks that we see. And yeah, definitely, ‘man-eater’ is such a bad term, I hate it. I hate even the thought of it. And it is a real misnomer.

Katie: This may seem like a silly question, but it is one that has come up when we’ve been talking about sharks publicly, and it was, do sharks like the taste of humans?

Blake: I certainly can’t confirm that they do. But the evidence that we see from analysing shark bites, and from looking at the patterns is that it is very unlikely that they like the taste of humans, or that they target humans because they’re hungry for human flesh. One of the things that we have to consider is that most shark bites are actually minor, so if you look at the worldwide statistics like I mentioned before, America has the most bites, but these are often quite minor, to the point where some shark attacks don’t even result in an injury, and that is quite common. Sometimes people don’t even leave the beach. Sometimes they might need a Band-Aid or a stitch, but most bites are very minor. We do tend to see more serious bites here in Australia because of the species of sharks that we have, and the environments that we’re swimming in, but again, while very rarely a body isn’t recovered, or isn’t found, and there are certainly are examples of when a shark has consumed a person, that is extremely rare, and the exception to the rule. If you talk to surgeons or people who have seen firsthand a lot of these bites, there’s a really characteristic crescent shape flap of flesh that’s seen on shark bite victims. So the shark has come in, it’s bitten on because of the way that its teeth are designed and because of the way that the animal’s designed to capture its prey, it does tear that flesh and these are very gruesome injuries that we see. They do a lot of damage. But that flap of flesh remains, which suggests that the shark has bitten, has realised it’s not something that it’s interested in, has let go and swum away.

Belinda: It’s not far from many people’s minds though when they do go to the beach, that Jaws music just seems to waft in to the back of your head when you’re bobbing away beyond the breakers and especially here in Queensland obviously shark nets have been a part of our lives, and it’s, I grew up with shark nets, and always been able to see them, how do they work? Like I always thought that they stretched the entire length of the Gold Coast and went all the way down to the bottom, so I was well protected from any shark.

Blake: Yeah, I think that that’s another one of those really common myths around sharks. So shark nets are extremely controversial, especially at the moment. We’re really putting a lot of pressure on our politicians to adopt better mitigation measures. They are designed as a lethal mitigation measure. So their goal is to capture and kill large sharks. They are about 150 to 200 or 200 metres in length, depending on what location they’re used in. They don’t go to either the top or the bottom or sometimes both. Their efficiency in actually mitigating shark bites is very much debated, and it depends on who you talk to, which side of the story that the person is on, as to whether they think that these work. So a lot of times people use the reasoning of ‘We haven’t seen a bite here since the nets have been employed’ to say that they work. Other people say ‘No, they don’t work’. And I think really what it comes down to is that it is absolutely impossible to quantify or to determine definitively if these things work, and this is the same for most mitigation measures because we simply don’t know what would be happening if that measure wasn’t in place under those exact conditions. So we could say, ‘oh, the net is working here because no one has been attacked here’, whereas 150 metres down the beach, people are being attacked because there’s no nets, but the conditions are almost definitely different in those two places, so you can’t compare them. So that’s one of the real difficulties in establishing which mitigation measures are going to be best. What we do see with these nets though is that about 40% of the sharks that are caught in the nets are caught on what you could consider the wrong side, or the beach side. So they’ve come into the beach and on their, are on their way back out to sea where they’re caught. So nearly half of them, it’s a flip of a coin as to which side of the net that the shark is going to be on. We’ve also seen in, we have a lot of sharks that are being tagged and tracked through various programs now, and so we can monitor their behaviour, and we’re seeing that sharks are swimming past the nets. So they’re not collecting all of these animals, but what they are doing is they’re collecting a lot of other animals. So in most of our mitigation programs, we’re targeting potentially dangerous species over two or three metres, depending on which program you look at. But these nets are catching turtles, seabirds, small sharks, big sharks, fish, whales, a whole variety of things that they aren’t meant to be catching, so they’re very indiscriminant.

Belinda: Is there research going into other methods that might be more friendly to other sea creatures, yet give people that sense of protection on the beach?

Blake: Absolutely! We’re seeing a whole wave of different technology coming in, which is fantastic. So the big thing is that we’re learning to correlate sharks sensory systems with different mitigation measures. So it’s really important to understand how sharks sense their environment so that we can try to deter them from coming in to where we want them to be coming in. So we’re using things like electro or electromagnetic deterrents. There’s some visual ones that are being investigated. Some of the really interesting things that I think are some of these smart technologies, so there’s smart drum lines, and I think that we’re also looking into smart nets which have monitors on them. So as soon as something is caught, they’re sending signals to someone who’s on standby that can go out and check the lines or the nets. Because one of the bigger causes for fatalities on drum lines in particular and also in nets but nets work a lot faster is that these animals are drowning. So even though sharks live in the water, they still drown. If they can’t move around, they can’t get oxygen through their gills, which is what they need to breathe. So if there’s a line that’s not being checked for 72 hours, then the animals on that line don’t have enough room to move around and they’re just drowning. So as soon as something is caught, if someone is going out and checking it, then if it’s a non-target species then they can let it go then and there, if it is a target species they can decide what to do with it based on the program. They can kill it if it needs to be killed, or they can take it offshore, tag it, release it, let it go. So I think that these things are a much better way, but yet they’re still known technologies, they’re still the drumlines that people say have been in existence since the 1950’s and no one has been killed on a beach with these in operation. So I think that these are a really good mix of what we know with new technology that will help us to achieve that really specific goals of these programs.

Belinda: One of the other questions that is asked or statements we hear a lot about is shark culls. Is that something that’s necessary to protect humans?

Blake: Again, all of these mitigation measures are going to be controversial. I would argue no, we don’t need culls, and that they’re not an effective way. If you think about it logically, the big animals that are causing major destruction and occasional fatalities are generally very migratory species. So for culls to work, you’re going to have to be putting in continuous effort over really large areas of water. So you’re going to be causing so much destruction to these ecosystems, because they’re not just in a one square kilometre range of beaches that humans use, they’re moving up and down the coast, they’re going from Australia to New Zealand, or even further in some cases. So we just need to think about what we’re doing to the environment for the sake of very, very rare accidents, which are exactly what these events are. So I don’t think that they work either. It would have to be a continuous effort, and we’re seeing that we can’t sustain that sort of effort. So you might cull some sharks, but then the next week or the next month or the next year you have new ones moving in.

Katie: I have a friend who’s strategy when she goes to the beach, she’s quite afraid of sharks, but her theory is that as long as she swims behind someone that’s a little bit weaker than her, a little bit older, she’s going to be fine, they’re going to be the first victim. Is that true? Are sharks going for the weakest link?

Blake: It’s that age old thing for any animal, isn’t it? If there’s a bear, just make sure you’re not the slowest runner. Sharks aren’t targeting people. And to be honest, humans are really awkward in the water. We are not designed to be in the water. So if you think of a group of swimmers in the water compared to a shark, it’s not one person who’s going to outswim a shark, whereas maybe someone’s a bit slower and that shark isn’t quite as fast as that slower swimmer. You could put an Olympic athlete and a shark and there’s no contest. So humans would be a really, really easy meal for a shark. And you think of things in terms of energy expenditure, because this is how animals operate, they need to survive. So they’re out there eating so that they have the energy to survive, to reproduce and pass on their genes, that’s what animals are designed to do. And so if a shark wanted to target a human, or wanted to target populations of humans, if sharks were surviving on humans, we would know about it, absolutely. We’re not unpredictable in where we swim. There are regularly people in the water at Bondi or on the Gold Coast, or on the coast of Adelaide where people are always there. And then you see populations just off the coast, where there’s regular populations of marine mammals, so you have seals or sea lions. Sharks are regularly there. They have evolved based on these predator prey circumstances. They know where their prey are, and you can see in their migration patterns that they target these locations. They aren’t regularly targeting the locations where humans are. So while we don’t stand a chance against a shark if they really were targeting us, it’s one of those things that this is an example that shows us that they really aren’t targeting us.

Katie: You talked a little bit earlier about how awkward people are in the water to a shark, it’s almost like you’ve seen me swim, and something that we hear a lot is if a swimmer is wearing black or dark colouring, we can be mistaken for a seal. Is that the case, is there a particular colour we should be wearing when we’re swimming to separate ourselves from the seals, or is it already obvious because we’re just not that graceful in the water.

Blake: That’s a really good question, and there is a lot of research that takes into consideration colours. What we’ve found is that sharks are colour-blind. But there’s more that goes into what we consider to be colours. So there’s hue, there’s brightness, there’s intensity, and these things are quite visible to sharks. So there’s this lovely theory that was going around about yum, yum yellow, and people were saying that you don’t wear yellow because that attracts sharks. So while we know that they don’t see yellow, it does stand out. And there have been examples, I don’t want to say scientifically backed examples, but there are examples where a yellow, for example a life jacket or a life vest is thought to attract sharks over a darkly coloured one. So this comes into play for things like aircrafts. So if there’s a plane that goes down and people wear their life jackets, this is where it comes into play. And it’s one of those questions that again, is really frustrating for people who know about it, because the chance of a shark bite is so minimal, if I were to be floating around in the water after a plane has crashed, I’d want someone to find me, so I’m going to be wearing my yellow life vest, and I’m not going to be throwing it away saying ‘I don’t want to be attacked by a shark’, I’d rather just drift where no one finds me. So we have to be really careful about stuff like that. But there is the silhouettes, so that’s something. There is miss-identity. So yes, in certain circumstances, we can look like a seal. Sharks come up from the bottom in most cases, they’re mostly ambush predators, they don’t want us to see them coming. So they’ll either attack from behind or come up from the bottom. So if they’re coming up, they’re only going to be seeing a silhouette. So if there’s a surfboard with someone’s arms and legs hanging over the side, it could look like a seal or a turtle. And this is something that we do think happens. So there’s a lot of different research that’s out there at the moment that’s trying to break up silhouettes, or that’s trying to somehow mask that silhouette, or just make it so that we, the shark isn’t just seeing something that could be mistaken as one of its normal prey items. 

Belinda: What about shiny items like jewellery? Does that glint catch their eye and make them want to come and investigate and have a little nibble or nudge?

Blake: Yeah, absolutely, that is one of those things that we’re, that it’s recommended to avoid. Avoid wearing shiny things that could give that little glimmer, because it resembles fish scales.

Belinda: You did touch on my childhood film of Jaws, which scared me to the point that I didn’t even like swimming in a pool, because I thought there was a shark coming up behind me. But how realistic was that movie? 

Blake: You’re not alone. Please don’t feel bad about that. The number of people that I’ve talked to who won’t go in a swimming pool. I’ve had people tell me that they were scared of the bathtub because of Jaws. So it is a real, real fear. And that movie, the damage that it’s done in terms of fear and in terms of the number of sharks that have been killed has been astronomical. It’s reasonably unrealistic, let’s be honest. The shark who devours the boat to try to get the people, we’ve not seen that happen. Sharks do take dogs, sharks occasionally bite people, so there is some degree of reality, but the motivation of that shark was just astounding. I don’t think that there’s a shark out there that we know of that is that motivated to kill specific people. And again, I don’t think that it remembered the faces of the lead characters to actually hunt them down. As you go through the Jaws series, these sharks do get really smart, and they can find family members, they’re like the mafia. So that’s not something that we have seen in the literature that’s happening. So we do have to realise that these movies are fictional, but of course there is a degree of reality that sharks are out there and they are really significant predators in their environment.

Belinda: Speaking of pop culture and some crazy stuff that we’ve witnessed, is there such a thing as shark repellent, as in Batman, he asks for some shark repellent when he had a rubber shark hanging of his foot.

Blake: There are some attempts at shark repellent, they all have confirmed cases of them working from the manufacturers. Very few shark repellents have been independently tested, and this is the key terminology here, is this independent testing, because the manufacturer is going to play on the fear of people. And this is something that we’re unfortunately seeing a lot in terms of shark repellent, shark mitigation strategies, these entrepreneurs are going out there and saying ‘Oh there’s a market here because people are scared, so they will do whatever it takes’. So we have to be really, really careful in the products that you choose. Some of them are looking to be beneficial, and could work in some circumstances at least, but in terms of repellents, there’s some really, we’ll say interesting ones out there. Some of them are meant to, you can buy them in an aerosol can and they release a scent that’s supposed to repel sharks, it’s based on dead shark material called necromones. I don’t know that there would be too many situations where that would be effective, because you’d have to see the shark coming and then get access to this can of stuff and release it. And like I said, a lot of these big sharks will use ambush or surprise attacks and so you’re not going to have time to do that.

Belinda: I suppose the best repellent of all is to be smart and either not go into the water at all, or avoid certain times of the day, because there are higher chance times of the day, aren’t there, peaks?

Blake: Yeah, I’m such an advocate for education, I think that that is the number one mitigation strategy that anyone can employ. Dawn and dusk, that’s a big one. It has to do with the amount of light. So we want to be able to see the sharks, because if we can see them, that’s a deterrent and we can get out of the water. And we want them to be able to see us. We don’t want there to be that misunderstanding where they go ‘oh, is that something I should be targeting, I might be able to eat it, I might just go and investigate it’.

Katie: In 2015 we saw a very public figure be attacked by a shark, that was Mick Fanning when he was competing out in J. Bay in South Africa, and what I find really interesting about that case is firstly that people call it an attack, even though he was unharmed, and he himself says he thinks maybe the shark kind of got tangled in his leg rope on his surfboard, but it’s also that afterwards he did talk a lot about the stress from that event. How lucky was he during that episode?

Blake: Well I think a lot of people would say that he was unlucky. He’s had two of these instances now, so whether you would consider that lucky or unlucky is quite subjective, but I think, yeah, he was lucky in the sense that it didn’t get any worse. What I like about the Mick Fanning situation is that it was a very public reminder that not all sharks want to eat us. There are sharks in the environment that people swim around them all the time, whether they know about it or not. If you talk to surfers, they know sharks are there, and they’ve come to terms with it. It’s part of the activity that they participate in. So I think that there is, there’s one study that showed that less than 5% of interactions with sharks are considered to be negative. So it was a great reminder. So of course the media jumped on it and there was attacks and everything, but if you look at it from the positive perspective, there was this animal out there who we know could have potentially done a lot of harm or killed this person on public TV in front of lots of people. But it didn’t, it got caught up and it swam away as quickly as it could. So I think that that’s what we need to take away from the situation. And yeah, he was lucky that it didn’t come out any worse. He was also lucky for quite a memorable experience that he can talk about although I know he gets hammered about it and that’s one thing that everybody always wants to talk about, so I can see why it would continue to plague him in. We do really, really have to remember that these can be very, very serious events and the trauma that people face both physically and mentally is significant.  

Katie: Mick was almost you know, celebrated as this Australian folk hero for coming out of that, that situation the way he did, and some of the things he says is you know, I fought back, I punched it, and that kind of thing. Is that a good idea, if you do have an entanglement with a shark? Should you be aiming for the nose?

Blake: If you find yourself in this situation, you need to defend yourself and get out of the situation. That’s the most important thing. And you do whatever you have to do. A lot of people say punch the shark, that’s one of those things that’s been going around for a long time. If that’s what you can do, then do it. If a shark is motivated, if it is hungry, if it is really curious, then punching it in the nose isn’t going to do a thing. It’s just what you can do. And I don’t want to say don’t do anything, because you might be in a position where the nose is the only thing you can get to, so I’d be punching it and punching it and punching it, trying to get through to this animal to leave me alone.

Belinda: We’ve touched on obviously the negative perspective to do with sharks with the attacks and coming up for an inquisitive nibble, I want to flip it and look at the positive impacts sharks have on the world. So we are using sharks in our research, aren’t we? I hear with cancer research.

Blake: Yeah, it was actually one of those myths that sharks didn’t get cancer that lead to a lot of research on their immune system. And what we found is that they have incredible immune systems. So if you think about sharks, they are one of the oldest living vertebrates on the planet. They’ve been in existence for about 450 million years. So that’s quite hard for a lot of us to comprehend. But think about it, they were in existence well before, long before the dinosaurs came around, and the dinosaurs were wiped out, sharks survived. So these animals, there’s only a couple other vertebrates that have been around longer than sharks have. They are extremely well evolved for their situations. Everything about them has been so refined by all these millions of years that they’ve been in these environments surviving. So it’s not surprising that they’ve developed these excellent immune systems. They’re in environments that are full of bacteria, full of parasites, full of animals that can harm them. These are big animals, they need to be eating on other big animals. So going back to that seal example, they have really sharp nails and claws, they’ve got sharp teeth. Sharks get injured, they get injured all the time through eating, through ingesting things that are sharp, a stingray barb or something like that. And their mating is actually really physically traumatic to them, again, they don’t have hands, they can’t grip onto their partners, so they bite onto the mate, and that’s how they attach themselves to them. So if you look at a shark who’s recently been mated with, they are ripped up. Their skin can be shredded. It is extremely aggressive. But they’re designed for this, that’s why they have such thick skin and particularly in their places where the males will bite onto the females. So again this is what they’re designed for. But they’re also designed to heal. If you’re weak in this marine environment, it’s scary out there. It’s a big, bad ocean. So if you’re weakened by something like this, then you’re not going to make it. So the quicker they heal, the better, the more they’re going to survive. And that’s exactly what they’ve been designed to do.

Belinda: So can they get cancer?

Blake: They can get cancer, yes they can, but they often have these things to, I don’t want to say they can cope with it, but they are adept to dealing with it better than what we are.

Belinda: So what are the benefits then of sharks to society and to our ecosystems?

Blake: To be honest, I don’t think we know the full extent of the benefits. We do know that they serve very important parts in pretty much all aquatic ecosystems. They are in some cases apex predators, which the ecosystem revolves around, it relies on these, so if you take them out, they’re called cornerstone species, if you take these cornerstone species out, then there are going to be ramifications that cascade throughout the environment. There’s been a couple of really interesting studies on tiger sharks that show that they influence everything down to the seagrass. So if you take out the tiger sharks, then the whole ecosystem is out of whack, because tiger sharks prey on dugongs and turtles and things like that, that then feed on the grass. So it’s evolved to have these checks and balances, and so without them then the seagrass becomes overgrown and it takes out other things. So we’re talking about major catastrophic events to an ecosystem if we remove our sharks.

Belinda: So they are obviously very important to our ecosystems, so are we facing extinction with some of our sharks? Are some species actually looking down the barrel of no longer being here?

Blake: Yeah, we’ve definitely seen major declines. I think that it would be extremely sad if we were to lose some species, but there are numbers that are being thrown around like 95-99% of populations have been overfished through commercial fisheries or finning practices. The shark nets are listed as a key threatening practice in New South Wales. So we are doing major damage to these things, both mostly through commercial fishing, but also in terms of trying to protect humans as well, so we do need to be better about this, we do need to start protecting them, and not taking so many out of the water.

Belinda: What is the end goal then of your research, what you’ve been looking at?

Blake: Well I really want to just find a happy medium. I want to I guess, I want sharks to be able to survive in their natural habitats, but I also want humans to be able to go into the water, not be terrified. Because if you go in, say you go for a dive, and the whole time you’ve just got that Jaws theme song playing in your head, you’re not going to enjoy yourself, so what’s the point in doing it, and that’s a real shame, because the risk is so low and these environments are incredible. So it’s a real honour that humans are allowed to use these environments, that we’ve developed the technology that allows us to go in there and experience the marine or the aquatic environment, because they are really special places.

Katie: Blake you’re obviously very passionate about sharks and you’ve convinced me that I might need to get a pet one, although I think legally and ethically that could be a problem. Is there anywhere people can go to find out more about you, sharks, educating themselves on what to do in situations?

Blake: Yeah, there is some really great resources out there, I will put a shameless plug in about my book. So I’ve written this book and there’s a lot of fact in there. There’s a lot of information, a lot of educational resources in there, it really is something to help balance out all the sensationalism we tend to see.

Belinda: Rightio we’re going to close off this episode with the short segment we call Spare Change in which we get to know you a little bit better with some rapid fire questions, so are you ready?

Blake: I’m ready.

Belinda: Okay, first of all, what’s the one fact that listeners wouldn’t know about you?

Blake: I think prior to listening to this podcast, it would definitely be that I’m female, because the name Blake always makes people think of a man.

Belinda: Good one! What’s the one question you’re sick of being asked?

Blake: It would have to be about punching the shark in the nose, so thank you for asking it

Belinda: Great to see that we’re consistent. If you could go back in time by ten years, what would your advice be to a younger you?

Blake: I think it would have to be to back myself. In the field of science, we’re continuously being judged and people are always playing devil’s advocate to test us to make sure that we’re really doing the right thing and that everything we’re presenting is true, so you really have to have a thick skin and back yourself, and that took me a long time to learn, so I wish that I had learned that quicker. So probably either that or to do medicine and just avoid sharks altogether.

Belinda: So who or what is your biggest influence in life?

Blake: This is going to be another one of those really strange ones. I’m American and when I grew up I loved baseball. There was a first baseman on my favourite baseball team and he was not what you’d consider to be an athlete, he had a beer gut, he was unshaven and just generally unkempt, but he had so much personality and he was really good. So well I don’t want to say that he was necessarily a major influence in my life, I learned a lot from him. You don’t have to fit a mould. You have to be good at what you do and let that speak for yourself and you have to be real and let your personality come out and that’s what people are going to take on board I think is a really great lesson. 

Belinda: What’s his name so we can Google an image?

Blake: John Kruk

Belinda: Thank you. And finally, this is the toughest one. If you had to choose a piece of music that would best describe you, which song would you play?

Blake: This really is a tough one. Yeah, okay, a friend of mine got my first daughter when she turned one, and it was called The Octopus’ Garden, apparently it’s a Beatles song. I hadn’t heard of it, but I could relate to that in a weird, very strange sense that the song is written in. But I like to be under the sea.

Belinda: That’s the end of another episode of UQ ChangeMakers. If you want to learn more about Dr Blake Chapman and the myths from the deep, visit our website at uq.edu.au/changemakers, where you can also subscribe to ChangeMakers magazine. I’m Belinda McDougall.

Katie: And I’m Katie Rowney. Our podcast was produced by Michael Jones and Jessica Mcgaw. If you enjoyed this episode tell your friends or colleagues, leave a review on iTunes or email us at changemakers@uq.edu.au. If you want to create change tune in next time when we interview another inspiring member of the UQ community. Thanks for listening.

 

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