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Why Sharks Matter

David Shiffman '07 is on a mission to change your mind about sharks

When David Shiffman ‘07 applied to Duke University in 2002, he wrote his application essay about the first time he swam with sharks. The then-landlocked Shiffman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, included an anecdote about consoling his father before his dive into the deep with an 11-foot tiger shark -- "Don’t worry Dad. They don't usually eat people."

Seven years later Shiffman has interacted with more than 3,000 sharks on five continents -- and he's still pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes through his work as a marine biologist and shark conservationist at the University of Miami's Abbes Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy.

"They do not deserve the fear and the demonization that they get," he says.

Every year when the Discovery Channel launches its seven-day TV series on sharks known as Shark Week, Shiffman shifts between his television and Twitter, monitoring the shows and tweeting corrections online, where he can be found at @WhySharksMatter. He uses opportunities like Shark Week to engage captive audiences in shark science.

Shiffman's passion for science communications has led him to woo 18,800 Twitter followers, making him the practicing marine biologist with the most followers of anyone in the world.

The main threat to sharks' lives -- overfishing -- and the imbalance in the food chain created by their absence -- motivates Shiffman to continue in his work studying their life cycles and migration patterns. Some species of sharks have "declined more than 90 percent since the 1970s," Shiffman says, and nearly one in four known shark, skate and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the leading species conservation watchdog International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Shiffman's research includes studying "mesopredator sharks," or mid-level predator sharks. These sharks are smaller than top-level predators such as the Great White, which can reach 21-feet long. Examples include two of Shiffman's favorites, the sandbar shark -- ranging from 7.5 to 10 feet long -- and 11- to 15-inch Atlantic sharpnose sharks -- which Shiffman says "are tiny but they don't know they are tiny; they have a big shark attitude."

In Florida, where Shiffman conducts his research, mesopredator sharks have the important role of keeping herbivore populations balanced, he says. When top-level sharks, called "apex predator sharks," are overfished, mesopredator shark populations increase, a theory known in the shark science world as "mesopredator release." The result is too many mesopredators eating the ocean's herbivorous fish. A decline in herbivorous fish means "algae on coral reefs grows out of control," Shiffman says, and the reef dies.

The interconnectedness of all life is something that Shiffman says he learned at Duke. An introduction to biology class with professor Alec Motten covered "all available life starting with viruses and bacteria and ending with humans" and expanded his imagination for the life cycle he was part of and had a duty to protect.

Now Shiffman wants to take that message -- of respecting for and caring for not just sharks but all of life -- to students like he was more than 10 year ago.

This year Shiffman was named the Florida Marine Science Educators Association’s Educator of the Year for his lecturers via Skype to more than 500 area students. Shiffman's lab at the University of Miami also regularly invites high school science students to join Shiffman on research boating trips.

"They help fish for the sharks, they help measure the sharks, they help attach tags to the sharks, they help take samples from the sharks. So they're up close and personal," Shiffman says. "And nothing will change someone's incorrect stereotypes and misconceptions about something faster than experiencing it up close and personal."

Shiffman says his family still expresses a little fear for his typical day in the office. But they've all found a way to make it work. He's struck a deal with his mom -- no shark talk until he's back on land.

But the encounter is what pushes Shiffman past fear and that nearly inexpressible moment when he comes face-to-face with the creatures he's always loved: "It’s just a feeling of awe and respect, to be so close to such a powerful, graceful animal," he says.