Sea Spotlight: Megan McCubbin on saving the sharks

When Love The Oceans was founded back in 2014, our initial driving force was to protect shark populations. Monitoring shark bycatch in some of Mozambique’s small-scale fisheries, our data has helped encourage indigenous fishers to move away from nets and towards more sustainable kayak fishing. However, with potential plans to legalise shark fishing in the Maldives, it is clear that sharks around the globe need our help now more than ever. We chat with TV presenter and zoologist Megan McCubbin about the steps nations all over the world can take to fall back in love with sharks and how to protect them!

Image Credit: @meganmccubbinwild on Instagram

We understand you have a background in researching sharks! Where did you go and what did that involve?

When I was 18, I was looking for a volunteer placement because I always wanted to get as much practical experience as possible. I first heard about Bimini Biological Station (which is also known as the Shark Lab in the Bahamas) and I applied and got a volunteer placement there for a couple of months. Subsequently I went back again so I’ve been there twice now and spent time living and working in a research lab. We were looking at various different things; Bimini’s a really special island because it’s just off the coast of the Gulf Stream so a lot of the bigger shark species arrive there to give birth.

Bimini coastline
Image Credit: Flickr

It’s a really important mangrove habitat which is vital for species like lemon sharks and nurse sharks. With a big diversity of species, timing shark movements is really worth doing to try to understand them but is difficult because they’re often in really deep water and move far distances. We were trying to assess populations of lemon sharks and understand their personalities while also keeping tabs on nurse shark populations and southern stingrays! So lots of different research projects going on at once which was a lot of fun.

Bimini Harbour
Image Credit: Antonio Scant on Unsplash

What is it about sharks that you love so much and what motivates you to protect them?

I’m a big lover of the underdog. I like species that are often misrepresented. I want to understand why they’re misrepresented and learn more about them because I think that fear is very often misplaced in these types of animals. I’ve always been interested in predators, I have ever since I was small. I’ve mainly worked in terrestrial environments; I’ve done a lot of work with big cats, in particular tigers and bears. I wanted to try and understand more about marine biology and I thought there’s no better way to do that than to look at sharks! I didn’t really know what to expect when I went out and saw my first shark which was actually a female tiger shark. From that moment, I was just captivated because of their elegance. They’re so beautiful, they’re just not what people expect. That to me is a real mission, to try and turn that reputation round on its head because they’re the most charismatic and curious creatures. We should be loving them and trying to protect them more than we are.

Tiger shark
Image Credit: Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash

How do you feel we can change public opinion about sharks?

I think it’s definitely possible, but I do think that we have to really look at media representation. I see articles all the time where the wording is appalling when it comes to talking about close encounters with sharks. Headlines like ‘Surfer narrowly escapes with life’ and there’s a photo of a surfer with a shark about 20 metres away minding its own business. It is really important that we tackle those issues: I’m always the first in to comment or send an email to say ‘Can we please try and change this messaging’ because it is incredibly damaging for populations. I think we are getting there slowly; people are becoming more interested and hopefully less fearful as more knowledge about sharks is known. The idea that lemon sharks have personalities – some are shy, some are bold – we can use that kind of knowledge to get people to relate to them. When they’re young they’re fairly social and they choose the individuals they want to swim around with as if they’re choosing friends. The more we can get people out there seeing sharks and getting to understand them, I think we’ve got a fair chance, but it’s a long way off yet.

After seeing your awesome episode of Planet Defenders, it was really shocking to see that shark fin soup and rock salmon (aka endangered spiny dogfish) are still on the menu in the UK. What steps need to happen to make a change?

They are 2 very different issues: with shark finning, we know that millions of sharks are persecuted solely for their fins every year and that is an issue all over the world. For me, in terms of steps that we can make in the UK, it’s still legal here to import up to 20kg of shark fin and that just doesn’t make any sense. No one needs to bring in 20 kilos, 1 kilo…or even 0.5 kilos of shark fin! You just don’t need it. It’s a tasteless bit of cartilage that people flavour with chicken stock; there’s no need for it other than status and showing off. I think we need tighter regulations on imports into the UK with shark fins.

As for rock salmon, it’s such a difficult thing; well such a simple thing: a species is in decline, it’s globally listed as vulnerable – what’s the solution? We stop eating it. But in order to stop eating it, the consumer has to be knowledgeable about what they are eating, so we need better labelling. We need the government to turn around and say okay, this type of fish can no longer be labelled as rock salmon. Rock salmon is an umbrella term that can hide the name of many different species; it could be absolutely anything that you’re eating. Consumers trying to be green and more ethical have got no chance whatsoever in making a good choice if they don’t even know what they’re consuming.

Aerial shot of a vessel alongside blue sharks in Cornwall, UK
Image Credit: BBC Planet Defenders on iPlayer

Sharks getting caught incidentally as well as in targeted fisheries is a big problem around the world. Do you think it can be possible for commercial and/or small scale fishing to be sustainable?

I do think there are sustainable fisheries, although there are probably quite few of them, especially in comparison to the unsustainable practice out on international waters. It’s very difficult because sharks contain a lot of mercury, so I’d never recommend eating shark meat. I think it is possible to reduce bycatch, but we have to be really critical about how we are regulating these big super trawlers and what’s going on in our international waters. I was shocked recently to find out that around the UK, only 1% of our big fishing vessels are independently monitored. If we’re not even regulating vessels around the coast of the UK, what hope have we got regulating what’s going on out in international waters?

And finally…how did it feel to swim with blue sharks in Cornish waters?

Oh, incredible. They are so beautiful. I really was not expecting them to be quite so colourful. Every time they turned they were different colours; every time the sunlight hit them they were so beautiful. I think it’s a real privilege that we have these sharks around our coastlines. What an amazing thing to have and what an amazing opportunity to be able to go out and see them. I think more people should be able to go out and have that experience, or at least I hope so. We often don’t really look at our marine life as being very biodiverse, but actually we’ve got so much out there; it’s all there waiting to be explored.

Megan swims with a blue shark in Cornish waters
Image Credit: BBC Planet Defenders on iPlayer

Looking for a way to reconnect with nature? Check out Megan’s recent book (co-authored with Chris Packham) here and catch her brand new episode of Planet Defenders here.

Written by Lily Holbrook

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