We got the chance to catch up with Hollie Booth, an Oxford PhD candidate and shark enthusiast, to find out all about her shark conservation work in Indonesia.
What are you working on and why is it important?
I work on shark and ray conservation. They’re in the same taxonomic family: Class Chondrichthyes - the cartilaginous fish (I’ll just call them all ‘sharks’ from now on!).
It’s important because sharks and their cartilaginous relatives are one of the most ancient and diverse groups of predators on earth, but they’re also threatened with extinction. It’s estimated that at least 1 in 4 shark species are endangered, which makes them one of the world’s most threatened species groups.
📸 Hollie Booth
Why are sharks important to ocean ecosystems?
Sharks have been knockin about on earth for millennia (around 450 million years, to be more precise). Today, over 1,000 different shark species have been described, and they’ve evolved to fill a wide range of weird and wonderful roles. In particular, as apex or meso-predators they play important roles in trophic cascades, and maintaining function and productive ocean ecosystems.
As well as all that, sharks and rays are important for people. Shark dive tourism is a rapidly growing industry, worth millions of dollars annual. Sharks and rays can also be an importance source of food security and income for coastal communities.
Currently what are the biggest threats to shark populations?
When I say fishing, most people think it’s because sharks are targeted specifically for their fins, which are sold for shark fin soup. However, while the fin trade is a major driver of shark fishing, it’s actually estimated that most sharks are caught as by-catch (or valuable secondary catch/cheeky bonus catch) in other fisheries (e.g. those that are targeting shrimp or tuna, which many of us like to eat). The trouble is that sharks are quite big, and many of them have funny shaped body parts (e.g. check out a hammerhead shark’s head, a sawfish’s nose or a thresher shark’s tail). They also tend to hang out where other fish – like tuna - hang out. This means they’re highly susceptible to getting tangled up in big nets or lines.
📸 Hollie Booth
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Managing trade-offs between shark conservation and fisheries objectives is really tricky. We need to find a way to reduce the number of sharks that are captured and killed in fisheries, whilst enabling people to use ocean resources sustainably for their food and well-being. In low-latitude developing nations, such as Indonesia, people are highly dependent on fisheries for food security and nutrition, and also highly vulnerable to micronutrient malnutrition. In some places, sharks form an important part of people’s livelihoods and food security, and it can be really difficult to find sustainable, profitable alternatives.
📸 Hollie Booth
What are the best aspects of your role?
I work on complex, inter-disciplinary challenges, and I find it quite fun to draw together lots of information on different issues, and to try to figure out an optimal way to solve them, which works for nature (i.e. sharks) and people. I get to do lots of cool analyses, using a mixture of biological, social and economic research, which keeps things interesting!
I also love the people I work with. I’m lucky enough to collaborate with a range of young, smart passionate conservation scientists from around the world. I love seeing them develop their skills, and I’m excited about the great things they’ll do for ocean conservation in the future.
📸 Hollie Booth
How have local people reacted to your work?
In both positive and negative ways. ‘Local people’ is often used as a catchall term, as though they’re one homogenous group, but people living in coastal communities in Indonesia are an extremely diverse bunch. For some people, they acknowledge that shark populations are declining, and our projects have helped them to diversity their livelihoods. They report on illegal fishing and strongly support conservation. In other cases, people are upset that shark fishing is becoming increasingly regulated. They don’t believe there is an issue, and they’d rather be left alone to their own devices.
Though in almost all cases, people are usually extremely friendly and intrigued to see a ‘bule’ (foreigner) wondering around.
📸 Hollie Booth
What inspired you to work in wildlife conservation?
I’ve always loved wildlife and the outdoors - since my dad used to take me camping and walking as kid, and show me the birds and butterflies in our back garden in Birmingham. As I got older, I did well at science at school, and was always keen to learn more about the natural world. I studied Natural Sciences at university, and specialised in animal behaviour and neuroscience; though I wanted to work abroad, and have spent my summers doing sponsored volunteering jobs in development and education. That was when I learned about conservation, and when I realised it was where my love of the natural world and my interest in people and development collided. And I decided: I WAS GOING TO BE THE NEW FEMALE BRUMMIE DAVID ATTENBOROUGH.
What are your biggest concerns working in conservation?
The biggest problems in conservation are caused by huge macroeconomic forces and global powers which are often beyond the scope and control of conservation NGOs. If we’re going to conserve the natural world, and live in harmony with nature, we really need transformational change on a global scale across all sectors. I often worry that I’m just putting a band aid on a gushing wound. I also care deeply about poverty alleviation, and sometimes wonder whether I should be spending more time worrying about people than nature!
Are you optimistic about the future of sharks?
I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I feel excited, and like the change we need is just around the corner, other times I feel frustrated that things aren’t moving fast enough. Realistically, I recon we’ll lose a few of the most vulnerable species before we turn things around for the rest.