Interview: Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler, Shark Researcher

Posted by David Diley, Director, August 19, 2015

This week's interview features Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler, a shark researcher who has long been involved with the shark conservation work at Shark Reef, where the story 'Of Shark and Man' takes place.

Interview: Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler, Shark Researcher

Hi Juerg, thanks for taking the time to chat with me, first off, a nice easy one, who are you and what do you do?

When it comes to sharks I am an independent researcher interested in the behaviour of free-ranging sharks and other large and small fish. Ever since doing my Master thesis at the University of Zurich I am fascinated by the fact that we know very little about the behaviour of free-ranging sharks. For my Master thesis I looked at the interaction between reef sharks and sharksuckers (remoras) in the Bahamas. I continued with a PhD, again at the University of Zurich, during which I also came to Fiji. I have another life which has nothing to do with sharks or the marine realm. I’m heading the international office of ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). But I cannot let go of sharks, so I continue studying them as a hobby. This is actually quite nice since I have absolutely no pressure from a university or another research institution. I can do the projects I want to do without having to ask anybody.

Tell us a bit about you, how did you come to work with sharks and do you remember when and how your interest in sharks came about?

During the first semester break of my biology undergraduate studies at the University of Zurich I did a one week field course on sharks in the Bahamas. This is when I got hooked. Before that I had no special interest in sharks, but large predators and nature in general. It became immediately clear to me that one can ask almost any question about the behaviour of free-ranging sharks without finding an answer in the scientific literature. Compare this to, for example, birds! There are hundreds of thousands experts out there (academic and not) that study birds. One has to really go very deep to find an interesting question that is not, at least partly, answered. With sharks this has been different. Back then very, very little was known about shark behaviour. So the field was wide and open. On the other hand it was evident that we knew little about sharks because they are hard to observe in the wild. Finding solutions to get a better understanding of what they do why and in what situations has been a challenge that was equally fascinating to me.

How did come you to be involved with research involving Shark Reef?

For my PhD I wanted to look at the life-cycle of the bull shark in the Bahamas. People working on Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas noticed that the bull sharks would always leave in spring each year for several weeks before returning to the site. The hypothesis was that they left for reproduction. Pregnant females would possibly swim to nursery grounds on the east coast of the U.S. to give birth. It was the time when pop-up satellite archival tags became available and so we attached a handful of them to bull sharks off Walker’s Cay just before they left in April to see where they were going. We learnt a lot the hard way from this pilot study. In autumn of the same year two major hurricanes destroyed the island and all its infrastructure. There was no way for me of going back to continue tagging bull sharks. I was devastated since I had just secured the funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation for my PhD thesis, but now had no access to sharks. Gary Adkison, a good friend of mine from the times on Walker’s Cay told me about this dude Mike who came to Walker’s Cay for several weeks and now was settling down in Fiji because he had found heaps of bull sharks there! So I contacted Mike and got a reply within hours: yes, plenty of sharks, come over and see for yourself! I hoped on a plane and the rest is history.

Juerg Brunnschweiler

How important do you think it is for Shark Dive sites to have ongoing research and why?

I think it is very important. Mainly to collect data that help to judge whether or not shark diving has any impacts on the target species. That is good or bad. We still know very little about how shark diving, the different protocols, number of operators and divers etc. affect sharks and other marine life. Shark diving operators can be great platforms that offer access for researchers to particular shark diving sites. Working with scientists can give operators credibility. But it’s a tricky one. I guess that many shark diving operators do not want to have researchers working with them. As I said, research can show that there are negative effects associated with shark diving which consequently would have to lead to the shutdown of the operation. Or bad press. Neither is good for business.

What changes if any, have you witnessed on Shark Reef in your years working so closely with B.A.D?

There have been a lot of changes over the years. In the first few years I went there, there were days, though not many, on which one could encounter all 8 species on a single dive. And there were definitely much less bull sharks. The dynamics have changed quite dramatically! Nowadays one encounters mostly only four species of sharks (bull sharks, whitetip reef sharks, blacktip reef sharks and grey reef sharks), all of them and especially the bull sharks in much greater numbers. Also the diving procedures have changed a lot over the years. The type of food that is offered, the way sharks are fed etc. Other changes are that much less giant trevally and red bass are there as a consequence of the changed feeding protocols.

There are a lot of people who believe the provisioning of sharks has negative behavioural and biological impacts on sharks, how do you feel about these claims having researched the issues so closely?

As you rightly say, people believe. They don’t know. This is exactly why research at shark diving sites is needed. The issue is a very important one but hasn’t been researched properly. Only recently scientists have started to collect and publish data that allow us to address these questions. What you need are long-term data sets, i.e. collecting data at the same site over a long period of time. That is challenging, not least because of the mentioned resistance of shark diving operators towards working closely with scientists. But things are slowly changing. What we have learnt so far from few sites around the planet, the Shark Reef Marine Reserve is one of them, is that, yes there are certainly impacts but they are not necessarily negative. A lot depends on feeding protocols, the behaviour of the shark diving operators etc. The case of stingray feeding in the Cayman Islands is, to my knowledge, the only one that has clear negative impacts on the target species. Some of these stingrays clearly are affected in a very negative way (physiology, behaviour etc.).

Looking at things with a more personal perspective, how do you feel about having been so involved with the Shark Reef story and how would you describe your own “journey” over the last few years?

I am extremely proud to have been part of this exciting project from the beginning. I do vividly remember all the discussions with Mike, Gary and many others. I think we were all on the same page from the beginning but of course our views differed from time to time. We all have very different backgrounds which in the end benefited the project. I feel privileged that Mike invited me to become the principal scientist in the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. It has been a great playing field for me over the past 13 years!

Where do you feel shark conservation is at this moment in 2015? Do you feel things are moving in the right direction? Are there any things you would change to make conservation efforts more effective?

I’m not sure if I am the right one to answer this question. I see myself as a scientist that advocates shark conservation. There are certainly many, many very different people with very different backgrounds and motivations involved in shark conservation. Mike’s blog gives a good overview. Generally speaking and from a scientific point of view I think things are moving in the right direction although relatively slow. As I have been saying for a long time, the most effective shark conservation measure is to protect their habitats and reduce fishing in general. Effective conservation these days is protecting habitats and not individual species. But of course flagship species such as whale sharks can help to get across the message and sensitize the public.

Juerg Brunnschweiler

What advice would you give to anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in shark research?

It’s going to be very hard but rewarding if you make it! Seriously, there are not that many opportunities, it’s a relatively small community, competition for funding and jobs is fierce etc. But as I said, the number of questions that need to be answered is huge! So go and try. It’s important that you have a solid education in biology, techniques and tools such as statistics, genetics etc. I made very good experiences with going to scientific congresses and meetings (not only sharks!) early on in my career. It helps you to get an overview of the field, meet relevant people and network.

What do you see or hope to see in the future for Shark Reef?

The Shark Reef Marine Reserve will always be a small project with a big impact. In terms of number of divers things won’t change much in the future. And that is good. I hope that people can still enjoy the heaps of sharks on almost every day of the year in 10 years from now. But who knows. It takes little to fish out a whole population of a reef shark species. Plus there might be interspecific dynamics that we don’t yet know of or understand and that will change the dive in the future.

Is there anything you feel particularly proud to have been a part of in your professional career so far, any particular stand out moments?

Not proud but lucky. I was lucky enough to document some spectacular behaviour such as the stomach eversion of a Caribbean reef shark or the jumping out of the water of a blacktip shark filmed from below the water surface. These observations all led to published papers that show how fascinating the behaviour of sharks is!

Finally, is there anything I haven’t asked you about which you’d like to mention? Do you have any message for the readers out there?

Not only sharks but all animals and nature in general face many anthropogenic threats. Climate change is just one of them. If we are serious about shark conservation and conservation in general then there is no way around the fact that we humans need to change our behaviour quite drastically. We need to change almost all of our patterns, the way we consume, what we eat etc. Humans are creatures of habit and it will be tough to relinquish.

Juerg Brunnschweiler

Posted by David Diley, Director