Dr Dean Grubbs, the current president of the American Elasmobranch Society and scientific adviser to the Save Our Seas Foundation, has spent two decades working with sharks and rays. Philippa Ehrlich asked him for his thoughts on the future of elasmobranchs.
Dr Dean Grubbs is an Associate Director of Research at the Coastal and Marine Laboratory of the Florida State University (FSU), the current President of the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) and one of the Scientific Advisors of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF). His personal interests span across a wide range of taxa, and he supervises numerous research and conservation projects throughout the USA.
When you hear phrases like ‘the sixth extinction’ and ‘the Anthropocene epoch’, conservation efforts can seem rather futile. How do you feel about the proliferation of bad news for the environment?
There is no doubt that human overpopulation has taxed ecosystems and natural resources to unprecedented levels and reversing these trends can seem impossible. But among all the bad news there is also good news. Unfortunately, good news for the environment doesn’t get the press coverage that ‘doom and gloom’ gets. This is what has been most frustrating to me. In my field studying elasmobranch ecology and fisheries science, there can be a robust stock assessment that makes use of all appropriate datasets and determines that a stock is stable; it will not get any attention. But if someone cherry-picks a dataset to suggest that the same stock has collapsed and the species is at risk of extinction, that will be picked up by the media and make headlines – and the general public is misled into thinking the latter scenario is true. It is critical that we highlight progress made as well as where there are problems.
What do you think are the dangers of over-emphasising conservation crises by using terms like ‘regional extinction’?
In biology, the word ‘extinction’ is generally used to mean the end of a species. ‘Extirpation’ is the loss of a population or the disappearance of a species from part of its range; some call this a local or regional extinction. I think the term ‘extinction’ should be reserved for cases where the loss of an entire species is genuinely at risk. When we say ‘extinction’, its use should be truly shocking to listeners or readers. In my view, if we use ‘extinction’ to describe the loss of a species from one small part of its range, this cheapens or dampens the severity of the word. It also desensitises the public to the concept of extinction if ecologists and environmentalists are throwing the word about in cases where there is little actual risk of a species going extinct.
Sawfishes are rapidly disappearing from our seas, so when a healthy population was discovered off Andros Island in The Bahamas, the area became a very important place. Dean aims to understand this rare community of sawfishes in order to protect them.