Colin takes lead role in shark conservation

From failed angler to leading shark conservation scientist, Colin Simpfendorfer has come a long way from childhood days playing in rock pools

By Ilaria Catizone

As a nine-year-old, Colin Simpfendorfer announced he was going to become a marine biologist. Originally from rural South Australia, he grew up in Perth, where he loved visiting the tidal rock pools north of Trigg Beach.

“I was fascinated by the underwater world that people like Jacques Cousteau showed us on TV,” he recalls. “I loved fishing, but I was really bad at it.”

He has never lost his love of the sea, and four decades later Colin Simpfendorfer is one of Australia’s leading marine scientists, and the newly appointed co-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s (IUCN/SSC) Shark Specialist Group.

His long association with sharks dates back to the final year of his Bachelor of Marine Science degree at James Cook University in Townsville. His one-year Honours project studied the shark’s life history.

“I didn’t have a strong desire to work on sharks specifically,” he says. “I had mostly decided to work on fish of some sort. But when I was presented with this really interesting project on sharks, I just had to jump at the opportunity.”

His Honours project led to a PhD thesis on the subject and sharks have been the focus of his career ever since.

“I think they are amazing creatures,” Colin Simpfendorfer says.

"They have been very successful in the oceans for 400 million years. The dinosaurs have come and gone in the time sharks have been around and it has only been over the past few decades that sharks have been put under some pressure, by man.”  

Many people are scared of sharks, but  Colin Simpfendorfer aims to show the public what interesting animals these fish really are, and why we need to make sure they don’t disappear from our oceans.

In 1993, Colin Simpfendorfer returned to Perth to work for the Department of Fisheries in Western Australia as its shark fishery research scientist. In 1998 he moved to Florida in the US where he worked at Mote Marine Laboratory.

During his 10 years in the US, he became manager of the Elasmobranch Fisheries and Conservation Program at the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research. His work was mostly focused on the conservation of sawfish.

The local species, Smalltooth Sawfish, was placed on the US Endangered Species List. His research provided the scientific understanding of the species needed to develop a recovery plan, which he was later appointed to help develop and lead.

Colin Simpfendorfer has long been interested in marine conservation efforts. He has been a member of the IUCN/SSC Shark Specialist Group since it was established in 1991 and recently served as regional vice-chair for the Australia and Oceania region.

“It is a real honour to now be appointed co-chair,” he says. “The group plays an important role in the global conservation of shark and ray species, so this new role also comes with a fair amount of responsibility.”

About one-quarter (322 species) of all known species of sharks are found in Australian waters, so it is important that Australia is involved with global shark conservation efforts.

During his four-year appointment, Colin Simpfendorfer is looking forward to improving the management and conservation of shark and ray populations globally, through science-based actions.

“I hope we can identify which species are most in need of conservation and achieve positive outcomes,” he says.

The Shark Specialist Group has more than 150 members in 12 regions around the world. The group uses the categories and criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to assess the status of all shark populations and that of related species, such as skates, rays and chimaeras.

The results of the shark group’s studies are used to make policy recommendations to halt and reverse declines. To date, it has classified 17 per cent of shark species as threatened with extinction.

These findings will influence future management policies of marine agencies in Australia and around the world.

Most of Colin Simpfendorfer’s career has been about providing sound scientific evidence to inform management decisions. As well as his Smalltooth Sawfish work in Florida, he has been a member of shark fishery management groups in WA and Queensland and has provided advice to several government departments on sharks.

He is chair of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority’s Shark Resource Assessment Group and director of the new Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University.

A large part of his work there involves providing scientific knowledge to improve the sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture in the tropics, including sharks, which are a valuable resource from both an economic and ecologic perspective.

In Australia, sharks can be caught intentionally as part of fishery or recreational activity, or by indigenous fishers. Sometimes they are captured accidentally by fishers targeting a different species. Sharks can also be caught in nets designed to protect humans in densely populated areas from shark attack.

Australia has long been committed to the conservation and sustainable harvesting of sharks. The main shark species fished in Australia are Gummy Shark, Dusky Whaler, Sandbar Shark, Whiskery Shark, Blacktip Shark and Spot-tail Shark. The jurisdictions responsible for these fisheries have science-based management systems in place, such as Total Allowable Catch or Individual Transferable Quotas.

These catch limits are backed by ongoing assessments to ensure sustainability. Non-target shark species are assessed under a number of other processes, including ecological risk assessments.

Through his work at James Cook University, Colin Simpfendorfer applies a holistic view to fisheries. The team he leads includes both biologists and social scientists.

This approach takes into account not only the ecological aspects, but also the human dimensions of fisheries management, something he says has been lacking until recently.

“As a biologist, exposure to the human dimensions of fisheries has been a really valuable experience and it has given me a much broader understanding of fisheries.”

Since 1998, the FRDC has funded 126 shark research projects, 71 of which have been completed. These projects focus on a variety of topics, from ways to maximise the sustainability of shark fisheries to methods for reducing the unintentional capture of sharks.

Colin Simpfendorfer and his team have been involved in many successful FRDC-funded projects. He currently leads a project investigating the ecology of sharks and rays, which is partially funded by the FRDC.

“This program is investigating the life history of sharks and their interactions with fisheries, the sustainability of shark and ray populations, how sharks move and what that means for their management, and more,” he says. 

FRDC Research Codes: 2003-019, 2010-007, 2011-030, 2011-078, 2013-009

More information

Colin Simpfendorfer, 07 4781 5287