Satellite Tags, Pearl Jam, and Fighting Shark Fin Soup: Q+A with Ocean Hero Finalist Dr. Neil Hammerschlag
BY: Justine Sullivan
Dr. Neil Hammerschlag – Miami, FL.
Neil is the Director of the University of Miami’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, which gives high school students, especially those from underserved populations, the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through “full immersion” shark research. Over 2,000 students from 40 countries have participated in shark tagging and diving expeditions. Dr. Hammerschlag was recently instrumental in protecting sharks in Florida waters when he testified for new regulations that would prohibit the recreational and commercial harvest of tiger sharks and three types of hammerhead shark. The protections went into effect on January 1, 2012.
Please describe your contribution to ocean conservation:
My goal is to utilize innovative research and education programs to study, and ultimately conserve our oceans and their top predators…Each year my team brings over 2000 participants – high school students and Citizen Scientists – out on the water to gain hands-on experience in ocean conservation science. Additionally, our website offers a plethora of virtual learning resources, such as a 30-module high school curriculum, a Virtual Expedition, shark satellite tracks, podcasts and videos…Several of our studies have resonated throughout policy and mass media.
I had the privilege of presenting my satellite tagging research to the Florida Wildlife Commission in support of tiger and hammerhead shark protection. As of January 2012, it is now illegal to kill these species in Florida waters…By creating a solid foundation of scientific research as well as a wide-reaching understanding of conservation needs, I hope to create meaningful change for ocean conservation.
Please explain why your contribution is important and why voters should choose you as a winner of the 2013 Ocean Hero Awards:
It is an honor to be nominated for this award. I feel that my contribution is important, but every little bit counts, so if you are reading this, then your contribution is important and worthy of recognition. I can truly say that my work is fueled by passion and a commitment to advancing ocean conservation and scientific literacy in youth. This is accomplished by conducting timely and robust conservation research as well as inspiring the next generation of environmentally conscious scientists by providing youth with meaningful practical-hands-on and virtual learning experiences in marine conservation.
What is one piece of advice someone has given you that has aided your efforts? Who gave you that advice and how did it affect you?
I have been very fortunate to have received great advice from many people. My former adviser, the late Aidan Martin, told me that “nothing makes up for spending time with the animals.” Such a simple premise, but often taken for granted. I often get so caught up in my work that I don’t always take the time to go out and spend time with the animals I am trying to conserve.
However, spending time with the animals makes me a better scientist, teaches me to be a good naturalist, and reminds me why I got into conservation science in the first place and also energizes me to work when I am feeling down or unmotivated.
What was your first victory and when did you start believing you could make a difference?
Graduate school. I was fortunate to get involved with several conservation projects. One of the earlier efforts was helping prevent Disney Hong-Kong from serving shark fin soup.
What’s your most recent accomplishment in relation to your ocean conservation efforts?
One of the most recent conservation successes that I was involved with included generating full protection for hammerhead, lemon and tiger sharks in Florida State Waters.
What is the one tool/piece of equipment/article of clothing/gadget that you possess that you couldn’t complete your efforts without?
Right now, satellite tags are extremely useful for my conservation research. I deploy these tags on threatened sharks to remotely track their movements. The data generated is used to implement effective conservation strategies.
You can learn more about our lab’s satellite tagging work here: http://rjd.miami.edu/research/projects/gps-for-sharks
You can also learn about our Adopt a Shark Program here: http://rjd.miami.edu/donate/adopt-a-shark
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to be an Ocean Hero?
Find something you are passionate about and that you are good at, and think about how to apply that to ocean conservation. Then go and do that. Nothing is impossible.
What is your favorite ocean or beach related song or band?
Pearl Jam – without a doubt! I am a huge PJ fan! I have been to over 30 shows and continue to follow them around. Their music, activism and art is fueled by the band’s love and respect for the ocean. If anyone reading this has an “in” with the band, I would love the opportunity to meet and discuss the ocean with them!
What is your favorite ocean related book or movie?
The BBC’s Blue Planet Series. Brilliant.
Inspired by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag? Vote for him to be a 2013 Ocean Hero!