Sharks are creatures that don’t typically feature high on people’s favourite animals’ lists. It’s definitely not a word you want to hear while at the beach, and mention of the ocean predators tends to conjure a strong and primal sense of fear which bring to memory beachside tragedies. However, these top predators of the sea are more varied and complex than we might first think.
Melissa Christina Márquez founder of The Fins United Initiative program is a world-renowned shark scientist, having featured as a TV presenter on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, written for publications such as Forbes, The New York Times, the Washington Post, presented her own TEDx talk, and taken part in summits and speaking events around the world. We had a chance to speak with her about sharks, the importance of shark conservation and the benefits of diverse representations in science.
Firstly, what piqued your interest in sharks and shark conservation initially?
“I’ve always been fascinated with misunderstood predators and sharks captured my heart from an early age. Wanting to make sure they are protected for the future, I have dedicated my life to conserving these endangered animals.”
How would you describe the focus of your current research and what influenced you to study this?
“I look at shark habitat use (why sharks are where they are) through the use of technology like underwater video cameras and drones. I also study human-wildlife conflict, seeing how our relationship with sharks has changed over the years and how that influences shark management success or failure.”
Why is shark conservation so important?
“Sharks are economically, culturally, and ecologically important. I go into detail about this in this Forbes article I wrote. Basically, we need sharks for a healthy ocean!”
How does shark conservation intersect with current environmental issues more widely?
“The biggest overlaps between shark conservation and other environmental issues exist in our fisheries (unsustainable fisheries/overfishing) and climate change (which is predicted to have a big impact on sharks). Overfishing is the greatest threat to sharks currently, with tens of millions of sharks being landed due to the high demand for shark products. As for climate change, as our oceans warm up, we can expect to see changes to shark migratory patterns, food availability, altered brain development, and even alterations on how sharks look!”
What is the greatest misconception people hold about sharks and what is a fact you’d like people to know about sharks?
“That they’re these “man-eating monsters.” They aren’t! Statistically speaking, you have an extremely low chance of ever getting bit by a shark. When many people think of ‘sharks,’ their mind tends to conjure up pictures of great white sharks, hammerheads, or bull sharks. But there are actually over 500 different species of sharks – and we are discovering new species all the time! There is so much diversity in the elasmobranch family that I wish more people were aware of.”
What challenges have you faced as a young, female BIPOC and how have you overcome them?
“The hardest part of my career has been how to turn rejection into motivation! As an early career scientist, I’ve heard a lot of “no,” “this won’t work,” and “I’m not interested” which I at first took personally. Sometimes it was laced with sexism, racism, even ageism. But I’ve gotten better at turning those hard feelings into something I could use to get fired up! I’m lucky to have a fantastic support system who has championed me, too.”
How important is it for women and BIPOC to be represented in STEM and how can this representation be increased?
“I am a big believer that representation matters! Often when people (children and adults) think of a “scientist,” they picture a heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class-to-wealthy white male. And while there are scientists that fit that description, there are many more outside of that ‘mould.’ So those who don’t fit that ‘mould’ deserve to see themselves in a line-up of scientists! An easy way to increase this representation is via social media campaigns, showing diversity in traditional media, and having diverse line ups of speakers!”
Furthermore, how would you describe the importance of diverse voices (in particular BIPOC voices) in environmental conservation and how can this be encouraged in the Australian setting?
“The lack of diversity on environmental organization boards and staff suggests that although there is a lot of talk about increasing diversity, it has not turned into widespread action. We need to remember that diversifying environmental groups takes time, patience and thoughtful, sustained action. We should hold environmental organizations accountable by making sure their diversity data is available to the public and asking why high positions (like their boards) are not more diverse. Organisations should also hold regular DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) training workshops, too.”
Do you have a favourite fictional shark?
“Bruce from Jaws is definitely a fave!”
Last but not least: what is your biggest career achievement/ proudest moment?
“Getting accepted for my PhD at Curtin University!”
Melissa began her Doctor of Philosophy in Environment and Agriculture at Curtin in 2019. It is ongoing.