Sharks on Twitter - a new era of science
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Kristian Parton is a Masters by Research student at Exeter University and is studying, what we can all agree is, the fascinating topic of marine debris entanglement in elasmobranches. His fascinating topic is matched by the use of some pretty novel data collection techniques for his paper ‘Global review of shark and ray entanglement in anthropogenic marine debris’. The use of social media is relatively unchartered territory in science, however, Kristian’s exploration of Twitter as a way of finding marine debris entanglement cases highlights the potential gold mine of data just waiting to be collected!
His social media persona doesn’t stop there as the #60SecondSharkScience he started on Twitter was a hit, with a short and snappy explosion of shark knowledge to entice shark lovers from all ages and backgrounds. As well as this, he is the co-founder of ShaREN (Shark and Ray Entanglement Network), in collaboration with The Shark Trust, Kristian created this online citizen science database. Anybody can log sightings of sharks and rays entangled in marine debris, resulting in more reliable data for scientists and fisheries to use when assessing the risk of anthropogenic debris to these beautiful creatures.
As if this wasn’t enough, Kristian has also published a paper on microplastics and other contaminant particles discovered in sharks around the UK, including lesser spotted dogfish, starry smooth-hound, bull huss and spurdog! Read on for our interview with this shark enthusiast.
What is the first memory you have of a shark?
I think initially from scuba diving, so I’ve scuba dived since the age of 14. I remember we went to Mozambique and Zanzibar and did a couple of dives with my Dad, it was very very early on so I had the instructor holding me and I remember we were doing this lovely dive 8 metres down. The instructor started shaking me on the back of the tank and he was pointing and looking up and I remember looking up as this beautiful oceanic whitetip just cruised past. I remember being in awe, just in shock of this amazing animal. And it was big, it looked so big, it probably looked bigger underwater and I was young as well and everything looks bigger when you’re a bit younger. I would say that was my first experience with a shark, definitely.
When did you become aware of the need for their conservation?
I got the bug after that dive and started getting involved more and researching about them and wanting to know about them. I’ve loved sharks since I was tiny but the conservation implications I only started learning about after diving, then particularly going to university, you learn more and more about it and that’s when I really started to specialise in shark science and knew that that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, hopefully!
What was your degree in?
It was zoology, I initially did animal behaviour but then swapped over because I wanted it to be broader and they didn’t have a marine biology course at university, it started two years after I joined. I specialised in all the marine modules I could possibly specialise in and those are the modules I did way better in.
What was the most common entangling material you found?
The most common material that sharks and rays were getting caught in is something called ghost fishing gear – so that’s fishing gear that’s either been lost or abandoned and it drifts passively around oceans entangling various different marine life. From small organisms to fish and then that starts to attract other organisms so turtles get involved, turtles get entangled, that might attract some slightly larger predators and so on and so forth. It’s sort of like a massive dinner bell to any shark swimming near a piece of ghost fishing gear. They’re going to go there because that’s where their prey is and subsequently can often get entangled. Ghost fishing gear was by far the most common entangling material, I think it was about 96% of animals that we identified on Twitter were entangled in ghost fishing gear and then around 70% from the scientific literature so it was large amounts of ghost fishing gear that was causing the entanglement. And then after that it starts to get into more specific things, so polypropylene strapping bands - things that are used to tie down various crates or pallets they’re sort of a rigid form of plastic that forms a loop – those were the next most common entangling materials. Then you start moving into things like fish aggregating devices which have long straps of netting which reach down into the water and entangle various individuals but there were also some more really weird entangling materials that we saw. We saw one shark entangled in a cap, like a snapback cap and it managed to somehow get its head through the loop and that was around its gills. Another one was entangled in a bright yellow BCD hose that was hooked around the gills, so there are some really really strange entangling materials as well but those were on a one-off basis as opposed to the ghost fishing gear which was the majority of animals.
Why did you choose to include Twitter in your entanglement paper? Do you think this is where modern science is heading?
I knew that I wanted to add some kind of youthful spin to the paper, I’ve read so many papers before that just seem to go on and on and on and I wanted it to appeal to the younger generation of scientists. Twitter in particular because I’m fairly active on Twitter and I had seen reports of entanglement on there but never really thought to quantify it in any way or explore it deeper. I’d seen the images and noticed them but then when I realised that I was going to be using social media I knew to start immediately with Twitter because that’s where I’d seen reports.
So, we can’t rely purely on scientific literature anymore? Your paper notes that 11 elasmobranch species, including keystone species like whale sharks, had reports of entanglement on Twitter but not in the scientific literature. What do you think this means for the future of research?
I think particularly on the topic of entanglement for sharks it was incredibly under-reported. There’s no denying the scientific literature works, there’s no denying that, but there are obviously gaps in our kno