Sharks and their relatives are some of the most threatened animals on the planet, and given their important ecological roles keeping ecosystems that humans depend on for food security and employment in balance, this is a big problem for all of us. Research published just in the last few weeks has shown that the amazing sawfish, called “hedge trimmers with fins” in New York Times coverage, have vanished from more than half of their global range in my parents’ lifetime. A newly described species is poetically called the “Lost Shark,” because it seems to have gone extinct in between when the sample was collected and when the species was formally described. Scientific research has a vital role to play in prioritizing and shaping policy responses; by studying threats to these animals and the solutions to those threats, we can more effectively create evidence-based policies and try to fix some of the damage to our oceans before it’s too late.
The American Elasmobranch Society (AES) is the world’s oldest and largest professional society focusing on the scientific study and management of sharks and their relatives, our members have played key roles in learning how to protect these animals and implementing those policies around the world. However, it’s important to look at what research is being performed and by whom, to see if there are any species or disciplines or perspectives falling through the gaps. To examine patterns in shark research and the researchers who study these animals over time, I assembled a multi-disciplinary research team ranging from rising star student leaders for whom this was their first-ever publication to former AES Presidents who wrote books I read when I was a kid. We read, coded, and scored the abstracts from almost 3,000 talks and posters presented at the AES annual meeting over 30 years.
We found that many of the most-studied species aren’t the most endangered species; they’re presumably selected because they’re easier for researchers to access. Eight of the most-threatened species found in the Americas were never mentioned in a single AES conference abstract. Vast regions of US waters are barely studied despite containing species of conservation concern. And even though social science and the human dimensions of shark conservation have long been identified as research priorities—management regulations don’t tell the sharks what to do, they tell humans what to do, so we need to understand the human side—just 21 out of nearly 3,000 abstracts used these important tools.
Our study also documented shifting demographics and affiliations among conference presenters over the decades. One identified concern is a big decline in aquarium-employed experts presenting at the AES conference. Scientists, husbandry specialists, and educators at aquariums play a key role in not only performing their own science on captive animals, but also speak to a huge audience of aquarium guests who can be inspired to support conservation. By not having these voices and perspectives represented in AES conversations, we risk missing out on many benefits to sharks and to our members. We also found that despite recent gains, the Society suffers from underrepresentation of many minority groups. This data will inform AES’s ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Scientists from diverse backgrounds often generate more creative solutions, and scientists who are members of certain communities can be more effective at vital community outreach, so we must do better.
This work has already resulted in active efforts to bring perspectives we’ve lost over the years back into the fold, and redoubled efforts to make the Society a welcoming and inclusive space for all. It has given me a big-picture perspective on the history of my field that I’ll bring into my public science engagement activities. And by showing what our research community hasn’t yet studied, this work will help to shape research priorities that will help us to better understand how to effectively conserve, manage, and protect sharks and their relatives. It fed directly into my current PostDoctoral research which identifies research gaps to generate research priorities for threatened sharks and their relatives, which we hope will be a one-stop shop for students wishing to perform policy-relevant work who are uncertain where to start. By examining trends in research and the researchers who perform it over the entire history of my field, this paper shows how far we’ve come…and how far we still have to go.