A Professor of Marine Biology, Dr. Christopher Lowe runs the Shark Lab at the California State University of Long Beach. In the lab, Lowe and his students develop and use acoustic and satellite telemetry techniques to study the movement, behavior, and physiology of sharks, rays, and gamefishes. Some of his recent research has focused on the development and use of aerial and underwater robots for autonomously tracking sharks for the studying of their behaviors.
Dr. Lowe and his students have published over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles and book chapters. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists, the current president of the American Elasmobranch Society, a member of the American Fisheries Society, Western Society of Naturalists, and Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). His research has been featured on Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC, NOVA, NPR, and Great White Shark 3D IMAX film. Dr. Lowe received the CSULB Outstanding Professor award in 2009 and Impact in Research Award in 2012.
He received his B.A. in Marine Biology at Barrington College in Rhode Island, M.S. in Biology at California State Univ. Long Beach (CSULB), and a Ph.D. in Zoology at the Univ. of Hawaii.
Planet Experts: Please describe your work as the director of the renowned Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.
Dr. Chris Lowe: The mission of the shark lab is to advance our knowledge and understanding of both physiological and behavioral ecology of sharks and rays and other game fish. That’s our primary goal. And part of that goal, in terms of understanding those things, is training the next generation of biologists and using new technology to help us better answer our questions.
PE: What kind of new technology?
CL: We use a variety. The shark lab was really one of the first labs in the world to use acoustic telemetry to study the behavior of sharks. My predecessor, Dr. Don Nelson, started the Shark Lab in 1969 working with electrical engineers to build his own acoustic transmitters that he would then put on sharks to follow them around and see where they go.
At the time, those transmitters were used primarily as beacons. You’d put this transmitter on the shark and it would enable you to follow them while they were out in their natural environment doing their thing. Since then we’ve integrated different types of sensors into the acoustic transmitters that tell us about the temperature the animal’s swimming through, the depth that the animal’s at, how fast its tail is wagging, and even how acidic its stomach is. It’s revolutionized how we study behavior of animals like sharks that range over big areas and are typically elusive.
PE: You took over the Shark Lab in 1998 after Dr. Nelson, its founder and your former professor, passed away. How have you continued his legacy and how have your goals as the Shark Lab’s director evolved over the past two decades?
CL: I think what’s happened is, using that new technology, we’ve made great leaps and bounds in terms of the things we’ve learned about sharks. In the last eight to ten years the technology we’ve used has gotten smaller, and we’re now able to tag smaller and smaller animals. We wouldn’t have been able to put a small enough transmitter on them 20 years ago.
In addition, the other thing that’s changed is I’ve been working with computer scientists and engineers to develop autonomous tools for tracking sharks and other fishes. We can now use robots to follow sharks underwater or from the air.
PE: Is this the same type of robot that you featured on CBS This Morning?
CL: Yeah. We call those AUVs, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. We’ve been developing those robots to autonomously track a tagged shark or fish underwater.
People will say, ‘Well, in the past you and your students did that. How can a robot do it better?’ Actually, a robot is far more efficient than we are because they can swim and chew gum at the same time.
Basically, we can program the robot to follow the shark around without having to get close to the shark ourselves. We can then estimate more accurately where the shark is in the water column and program the robot to be stealthy. We can tell the robot to never get within a hundred yards of a tagged shark. And if the shark hears the robot, gets curious, and starts swimming towards it, the robot is programmed to swim away from the shark. If the shark gets bored and turns around and starts swimming away, the robot turns and starts following the shark again.
PE: It is widely reported that humans kill roughly 100 million shark per year, and some species — such as the scalloped hammerhead — have been classified as endangered. What happens when a shark species goes extinct? What are the consequential implications for its marine ecosystem?
CL: These have been really difficult things to measure. In terms of our understanding of ecological concepts, we’re told that sharks hold really important roles in ecosystems as top predators. Their job is to keep prey populations from growing too abundant and having downstream effects on the ecosystem. The tough part is, it’s very hard to measure and quantify and document those effects.
What I tell people is, yes, sharks have an important role in the ocean. But, their roles probably aren’t any more important than anything else in the ocean. They just occur at lower abundances and grow slower than many other organisms in the ocean.
As we lose species, it changes the ocean that we used to know. It’s not just killing sharks that’s had effects on ecosystems, there are lots of other things, like loss of habitat, which affects their ability to rebound when we stop overfishing them. Pollution, global climate change, all of those things are simultaneously changing the ocean that we know.
It’s great that people want to protect sharks and understand that they serve an important role, but the reality is, they’re not the only ones that serve important roles. There are other species out there that we have to think about too. It’s all part of this intricate web that we’re trying to understand.
PE: Sharks have a highly developed sense of smell, as well as the ability to sense other animals’ electric fields. They also possess lateral lines that allow them to detect vibrations and changes in pressure in the water. With these keen senses, are sharks more affected by changes in their marine environment, such as rising temperatures, upwells of methane, ocean acidification?
CL: What we do know is that sharks are capable of moving, so when environmental conditions are not suitable in one location – maybe because you’re discharging warm water from a power plant – those animals simply move away. That’s one advantage that sharks have.
One of the concerns that biologists have now is that with global climate change, we’re seeing changes that are occurring over such huge areas that there are fewer places to run and may cause major shifts in populations.
So what would be good indicators that things are getting really bad? When we see animals shift from one region to another, that may be telling us something. We can use these animals that are sensitive to environmental change as really good barometers of ocean health change.
PE: You are an accomplished marine biologist who hails from a long line of east coast commercial fisherman. You therefore possess a very unique insight into the struggles between fisherman and environmentalists when it comes to writing and implementing policy designed to improve the health of our fisheries. How should these two groups work together?
CL: Well that’s the hard part, right? Biologists are always looked at as the bad guy in fisheries because often we collect the data indicating that a population may be in trouble, and this then leads to regulations to prevent overfishing. In most cases regulations are put in place to decrease harvesting, but that will obviously impact fishers, many of whom are just trying to make a living like the rest of us. However, our ultimate goal should be to have sustainable fisheries. And if we do that right, then those become sustainable business practices as well.
In the United States, we’ve done a better job of managing our fisheries in the last 20 years, but that’s come with some draconian measures. I mean, we’ve basically put a lot of our commercial fishermen out of business in that process. The individuals that are still remaining in commercial fishing have had to modify or dramatically change their business models in terms of how they fish. Those that are still around, in some cases, are actually starting to do fairly well and their businesses are actually doing better.
But that brought about the collapse of a lot of fishing industry in the US, because a lot of fishers simply couldn’t make those shifts fast enough and they couldn’t afford to meet their mortgages for their boats. As a result they’ve simply gone out of business, they’ve gone bankrupt.
Here’s the problem that I have with that. Basically, what we’ve done is we’ve outsourced our overfishing problem to other countries. We restrict restraints on our local fishermen in order to adequately manage our fisheries. Then we say to neighboring countries, we’ll buy fish from you because we have a market demand in our country for seafood.
Our local commercial fishermen can provide fish to our local community, but that comes at a greater cost to them, which means it’s translated as a greater cost to the consumer. However, we import cheaper fish – the same species – from just across the border, and unfortunately most international trade agreements don’t hold other countries to the same environmental standards as we require of our fishermen. I see that as unfair.
Most of the public doesn’t understand this. They just want cheap fish. They’re willing to pay less money, but they don’t understand that they’re doing ecological damage to potentially the same stock that we may be trying to manage.
PE: What do you think the solution to that might be, to make the industry more balanced?
CL: Changing business models, educating the public that if they really want to buy fresh fish you’re going to have to pay a little more for it. By working with good fishing co-ops and public education, you can get people to understand the difference between real fresh fish and not so fresh fish. We have fewer and fewer people that fish themselves and can actually recognize the difference between a true fresh fish filet and one that’s been frozen from fish that have been dead for months. You go to most of our supermarkets where you buy what’s considered to be fresh fish and it’s not even close.
PE: In recent years, the practice of shark finning in China has been the subject of much negative press. Does there seem to be a growing awareness among the Chinese population that its ongoing consumption of shark fin soup is driving several species towards extinction?
CL: This is another example of a market that grew too fast, mainly because of cultural changes. In China, shark fin soup was something that was only relegated to the wealthy and elite. It was one of those rare things you got to eat on special occasions and it typically was a sign of affluence. You have a country that now has a growing middle class, they have money for the first time, and they want to be entitled to the same privileges that the wealthy were. So you took what was maybe not so much of a problem 50 years ago, but with a growing middle class population, you turn it into a problem.
I think education programs about shark overfishing are really starting to make some in roads in China and changing people’s minds about shark fin soup. This is always tricky business, because it has been part of their cultural heritage, and the best way to convince someone to abandon a cultural practice that may be damaging is to educate them about the problem and let them decide for themselves.
I don’t have a problem with shark fins being used in shark fin soup, as long as the entire shark is utilized as part of the fishery. Shark fisheries are sustainable if they’re properly managed – the liver’s being used for liver oil, the muscle’s being used for meat, the fin should be able to be used for soup. It would be wrong for a fisherman to cut the fins off and throw the fins away just to bring the carcass back because he can’t land the fins.
The thing that I’ve learned about all this as a biologist is that I can’t just stick my head in the sand and ignore all the things that are driving the fishery, because it helps me to have better insight into the biological effects of that fishery. How does the fishery evolve and why is there such market demand for it. And if it’s a cultural thing, is it right for us to say, ‘Oh, you have to change your culture?’ That wouldn’t fly here in this country. But that doesn’t mean we can’t educate people and allow them to make their own decisions.
PE: Shark Week has proven to be a spectacular success for the Discovery Channel. What do you see as the pros and cons that arise out of its programming?
CL: The only good thing that’s come out of that series is it’s made sharks a household name. You can live in Kansas, in remote places in Russia or China, as far away from the ocean as you can possibly get, and because of that programming everyone knows what a shark is. That’s the good thing.
The problem that I’ve personally had with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is that they argue to me that they’re trying to do education, and that their goal is to convince people to protect sharks. But while they’re espousing all this important conservation information, in the background you hear [hums the Jaws theme]. Unfortunately, their primary recipe for success has been convincing people that sharks are scary.
A lot of people watch Shark Week, by and large, because they like to be scared. And it’s harder to convince people to protect something that they’re potentially scared of.
I understand their rationale and why it’s been so wildly popular – and I don’t have a problem if they want to refer to their programming as entertainment. I have a problem with it when they try to refer to it as education.
PE: What evidence gives you the most hope that we are able to reverse course when it comes to environmental degradation and actually improve the health of our planet?
CL: We’re doing a lot of work right now looking at the behavior of baby white sharks. As part of that work, one of the things that we’ve discovered – which is now becoming more of a global phenomenon – is that it looks like white shark populations are increasing. And this is an example of things getting better.
We get bombarded with doom and gloom all the time, and for many scientists, our job is to point out and document when there are bad things happening in the environment. This started 40 or 50 years ago. Rachel Carson is a great example of someone who started ringing the alarm bells saying, ‘Where have the birds gone? Where have the insects gone? Things have disappeared. What happened?’ And she was the one who really got people interested in all the things that we do as humans and how those things affect the environment. This lead to the development of the legions of conservation groups that exist today.
In this country, we’ve spent huge amounts of money and political capital implementing rules and regulations to help prevent damage that we do to the environment and restore damaged ecosystems. So you would think with all of that legislation and all of that money that we’ve put into cleaning things up, we should be hearing about things getting better. But we don’t hear about those things, even though they are. So why is that? I think the unfortunate answer is that “doom & gloom” sells and we now expect to hear it – daily!
Here in California, if you’ve lived here for the last 30 or 40 years, you would know that California had some of the worst air quality of anywhere in the nation. It was abysmal. They would put up alarms – you weren’t supposed to go outside and do any activity because you could damage your lungs. That was when we had three times fewer people living in coastal California. In 1971, we passed the Clean Air Act. Now you can see our coastal mountains on a daily basis. Our air quality’s getting significantly better with three to five times more people in cars.
We also had abysmal water quality because we were discharging raw sewage offshore. We had 22 million people all living within 50 miles of the coastline and they all go to the bathroom every day. Every time that toilet flushes, it ultimately ends up discharged offshore. We had some of the worst water quality that existed anywhere in our country. It completely changed the coastal ecosystem. Now we have some of the best wastewater treatment that exists anywhere in the world. Because of that, many of our marine communities have been recovering. But do you hear about that in the news? No.
So how is it possible that the white shark populations have been recovering if all we’ve been hearing for the past 50 years is we’re trashing our environment? Just protecting white sharks from fishing is not enough. Their food supply has to be there for the population to recover.
So what do adult white sharks eat? They eat marine mammals. Well, marine mammals were hunted to the verge of extinction by the early 1900s. In 1973, we passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because literally marine mammals were gone. Since the mid-’70s, marine mammal populations have been coming back better than anyone thought was actually possible. California sea lions went from 2,000 to 420,000 individuals in 100 years. That is absolutely remarkable recovery.
I’ve been hearing fishermen bitch about California sea lions for 10 years now. ‘Oh my god, there’s more sea lions, they’re stealing all our fish, they’re on our docks, they’re sinking our boats.’ Yeah, because we protected their populations.
And the reason why white sharks have been recovering is probably because their food sources, the marine mammals, have come back as well. And their food source has come back because it’s better protected, because we’ve improved our water quality and because we’ve better managed our fisheries.
We don’t want people to say, ‘Yay! We solved all the problems, let’s go back to our wasteful ways!’ – because there will always be new problems. But we do have to pat ourselves on the back for doing some things that have been major and that allow the ecosystem to come back.
Unfortunately, we just don’t hear about those things in the media enough. And frankly, we don’t have scientists out looking for those things because the way, historically, we’ve gotten money to do our research is to find bad things, not document recovery.