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ASU professor to feature in 2 episodes of Shark Week

Shark Week premieres Sunday, July 11.
ASU prof to feature in July 13 and 17 episodes of Shark Week.
July 8, 2021

Popular Discovery Channel series follows James Sulikowski as he tracks porbeagles, tiger sharks

Cue the “Jaws” theme song — it’s Shark Week time, and ASU Professor James Sulikowski wouldn’t miss it for the world.

An internationally recognized marine biologist, Sulikowski has spent more than 25 years researching aquatic life all over the globe. In this year’s edition of the phenomenally popular Discovery Channel series, which premieres this Sunday, July 11, he will be featured in two episodes: “Mothersharker” on Tuesday, July 13, and “Return to Shark Vortex” on Saturday, July 17.

“These episodes are going to be incredible,” said Sulikowski, who oversees the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab at the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on ASU's West campus. “We are using novel research techniques that are a first for shark science. Basically, we are tracking a pregnant shark to see exactly where she gives birth. The images are eye candy and the story will resonate with the average person who has never thought of sharks as being moms.”

ASU News caught up with Sulikowski ahead of Shark Week’s premiere to learn more about his research — and put him on the spot about how Hollywood portrays his favorite marine animal.

Question: What can you share about the episodes you’ll be featured in?

Answer: “Return to Shark Vortex” is about cold-water species, and I’m looking at the porbeagle in particular. Of all sharks, the porbeagle can withstand the coldest temperatures. It’s called the phantom shark because it’s so hard to catch and we know very little about it. So in that episode, we’re trying to catch and track adult porbeagles to see where they go, what depths they swim to, all that kind of stuff. In “Mothersharker,” we’re using an underwater ultrasound on tiger sharks, which is something no one else is doing because it didn’t exist before. I had the idea and E.I. Medical Imaging developed the technology because there was a tremendous need for it so that we can do sustainable science by using noninvasive, nonlethal techniques. Once we know if they’re pregnant, we can tag them and see where they go. But that's only half the picture — we need to know where they give birth. This is where the Birth-Tag comes in. This small, egg-shaped, inert satellite tag is inserted into the female's uterus, alongside her gowing babies. She carries this tag until birth, when the tag pops out along with the babies and transmits a location. Thanks to Lotek Inc., our idea was made a reality and now we have the ability to solve this great mystery of where sharks give birth.

photo of a porbeagle shark overlaid with facts about the porbeagle

Image courtesy of the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab.

Q: Why is that an important mystery to solve?

A: Because of climate change, habitats are changing. If we can determine where sharks are giving birth, where their nursery grounds are, then we’ll know which areas to protect and we can study how climate change might affect those areas. We need to know that so that we can protect not only sharks and shark babies, but also so we can protect people who might be in those waters.

Q: Did anything surprising happen during filming?

A: Conducting this while diving with 11-foot sharks was really scary — but doing it at night was crazy! But that’s part of science; you need to push the envelope and get out of your comfort zone. However, I was in good hands as Jamin Martinelli, who is one of the best shark handlers out there, was taking care of me. That’s not to say I wasn’t constantly thinking I was going to lose a limb while trying to conduct the ultrasound!

man underwater scanning a pregnant shark

Sulikowski performs an ultrasound on a tiger shark.

Q: What other research do you have going on?

A: Having the Odysea Aquarium here in the desert is really important as they are really excited about research and conservation. We have been able to test a lot of our new technologies with their help. One of the things we’re really engaged in with my lab now is research in the Sea of Cortez. It’s right in our backyard, and we are working with Pelagios Kakunja, a nonprofit that works to study and protect sharks and mantas in Mexico. We’re really excited to be working with them, especially with new research on bull sharks and white sharks, which for a lot of individuals are super scary, but we still know so little about them. We also are really excited about our continued work in New England with the Atlantic Shark Institute and New England White Shark Research Consortium. We’ll also be working with Beneath the Waves, another nonprofit, on several projects as well, and our continued work with Dr. Neil Hammerschlag in the Bahamas will all certainly keep us busy!

Q: You’ve said before that sharks are misunderstood, which is sad because they’re a big part of the ecosystem. How so?

A: You can think of sharks as the ultimate ecosystem refresher. They eat dead, dying organisms. In a sense, sharks are kind of lazy. They’d rather go out for dinner than cook a six-course meal. So they pick on dead, weak, dying organisms, and by doing that, they keep the ecosystem clean. Without sharks, things would get out of balance and it would have a cascading effect. You take those apex predators out of the equation and everything sort of goes haywire. People are always terrified of being eaten by sharks. But there’s 7.5 billion people in the world and only about 130 shark bites a year. Bites, not attacks — an attack is premeditated. A shark is just swimming around and sometimes it sees something that resembles food, so it takes a bite. But 90% of the time, they realize it’s a human, which is not something they want, and they leave it alone.

Q: Are you a fan of movies like “Jaws” and “The Meg,” or do you wish Hollywood was more accurate in their depictions of sharks?

A: “Jaws” definitely sent the wrong message, no doubt about it. The worst was “Jaws 4: The Revenge.” The captain was like, “This time it’s personal!” Come on, like a shark is tracking down a person to get even? “Jaws” was filmed at a time when we knew nothing about sharks, though, so it preyed upon our biggest fear: the unknown. And then some, like "Sharknado," where there are sharks flying around in the sky, are so far-fetched they’re just comical. So it’s good to remember to keep things in perspective.

Shark Week promo courtesy of Discovery

Top photo: ASU Professor James Sulikowski and students. Photo by Tanya Houppermans/Blue Elements Imaging

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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The benefits of shark tracking in the desert

New ASU prof James Sulikowski has been bitten by sharks three times.
Sulikowski's current favorite is the porbeagle, a cousin of the great white.
September 6, 2019

Marine biologist James Sulikowski brings his Shark and Fish Conservation Lab to ASU

This summer, when James Sulikowski announced on Twitter that he was moving his Shark and Fish Conservation Lab from the University of New England to Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, he left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Why would an internationally recognized marine life expert move from a prime coastal location to the middle of the Sonoran Desert to expand his research lab?

“There’s this land shark that nobody knows about,” Sulikowski said. “It's one of those great mysteries I'm trying to solve.”

He’s kidding, of course. (We hope.)

“Arizona State is an amazing university and the way in which they go about their mission and the opportunities available here are things that I was really interested in being part of,” he said. “So it might seem crazy but my research takes me everywhere — I do work in New England, the Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico, I collaborate with individuals in Canada — so this is just another geographical location for me.”

Sulikowski, who assumed his new post as professor and associate director of New College’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in August, hopes to add some of Arizona’s many freshwater offerings, as well as John Steinbeck’s fabled Sea of Cortez that separates the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico to that list of locations during his tenure here.

In 25 years as a marine biologist, Sulikowski has caught, tagged and tracked aquatic life as diverse as the cunning anglerfish, the lucrative scallop and his current favorite, the porbeagle, a cousin of the infamous great white shark. He’s been bitten by sharks a total of three times but he doesn’t hold a grudge.

“We are not on their menu,” he said. Most shark bites are either accidental or cases of mistaken identity that go south because, yes, their teeth are very sharp and they can do a lot of damage very quickly. That’s because throughout their lives, sharks’ teeth are constantly falling out and being replaced by new ones, like some sort of conveyor belt of freshly sharpened mouth daggers.

“Oftentimes the sharks that do bite people are relatively small and they're just going up to see what it is and then realizing it’s not what they want and then leaving,” Sulikowski said. “But even if its teeth are just touching you. … We’re like the warm butter and their teeth are like the hot knife. But it’s not a premeditated thing.”

He points out that globally, there are only about 150 human-shark encounters per year (the University of Florida’s 2018 International Shark Attack File puts that number even lower, at 130 alleged incidents of human-shark interaction), yet roughly 400 million people go swimming in the ocean off the coast of Florida alone every year. If you’re still worried, he suggests avoiding known hot spots like Cape Cod and the Cape of Good Hope off the coast of Africa, and avoiding certain behavior like swimming at dusk or dawn, swimming near seal colonies or wearing shiny things that mimic fish scales.

Sulikowski actually is more worried about drowning in the ocean than he is of sharks.

“In all of our outreach we try to impress a consciousness about how important sharks are to the ecosystem and that they're a lot more afraid of us than we should be of them,” he said.

When Sulikowski was a child, his family lived for a brief period of time in San Antonio. One of his earliest memories is of a day at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico when he happened upon a lifeless shark that had washed ashore. Far from frightening, the experience invigorated the young Sulikowski, sparking a lifelong fascination.

After earning his doctorate in zoology from the University of New Hampshire in 2003, Sulikowski began teaching there and later added a professorship at the University of New England to his resume in 2006. There, he founded the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab, and it wasn’t long before shows like National Geographic’s “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin” and the BBC’s “Rise of Animals” came knocking.

Over the summer, Sulikowski filmed his third appearance on the Discovery Channel’s wildly popular “Shark Week.” He is greatly appreciative of the opportunity such outlets afford him to share his work with broad audiences but has learned to be selective. One show recorded him and his team using cutting-edge technology to perform ultrasounds on tiger sharks, then later spliced in bogus footage of cartoonish baby tiger sharks going ballistic in the womb.

“Now we understand how these shows work and we stay away from the ones that are more hokey and stick to the ones that are scientific and that can provide great facts to people to get them interested in how they can help with conservation and being environmentally conscious,” he said.

Much of Sulikowski’s research efforts are focused on maintaining sustainable fishing ecosystems, so he works closely with commercial and recreational fishing industries and federal agencies to develop better handling techniques and identify areas where fishing should be avoided at certain times of the year.

To do that, he and his research team use a suite of technologies to track a variety of fish in a variety of locations. A typical expedition on the water lasts anywhere from one to two weeks, during which time they catch, measure and tag anywhere from 10 to 15 fish. Over the next year, data regarding the fish’s location is transmitted back to Sulikowski’s lab in real time. Using that data, his team can glean such insights as how fish population distributions and biological characteristics are affected by environmental factors like fishing industry and warming ocean waters.

“Those are things that are really important to us to understand, and because the environment's changing so quickly, research that was conducted over the last 10 to 15 years all needs to be redone,” Sulikowski said. “So it's an exciting time but it’s also a daunting time.”

Because sustainability is an important aspect of his work, Sulikowski aspires to using noninvasive and nonlethal methods of data collection in his lab. So for fish whose populations are endangered or threatened, they take blood samples or perform ultrasounds instead of sacrificing the fish.

Student involvement in research is also important to him. Recently, a group of his students took a boat out off the coast of Maine and ended up finding and tagging a thresher shark.

“Finding a thresher shark is like finding a needle in a haystack; it’s a gold mine,” he said. “And for students to be able to see that is absolutely incredible. One of my goals is to train the next generation (of researchers), and the way you train the next generation is you give them hands-on experiences.”

Not every outing is uplifting, though. In early July of this year, Sulikowski and his team found a female porbeagle with a ring of plastic embedded around her neck. If they hadn’t caught her when they did and removed the ring, he said, there is no doubt it would have eventually decapitated her.

They named the shark Destiny, and she is now transmitting location data “like a true champ.” It was a satisfying victory considering porbeagle populations are threatened globally, endangered in Canadian waters and on the cusp of endangerment in U.S. waters.

Looking toward his future in Arizona, Sulikowski is eager to begin exploring the abundant anglerfish populations and hopes to collaborate on that work with entities like the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“Not many people know this, but it's like a billion dollar industry here,” he said.

With an estimated 1 million anglerfish to start tracking, he’s got his work cut out for him. Thankfully, he knows he’ll have plenty of help along the way.

“Our mission and goals as a research lab fit really well with what Arizona State is all about,” Sulikowski said. “I know there are other faculty who are doing similar work and asking other kinds of questions here, which is really cool because if you can get multiple people working on multiple different questions, you can really get a good understanding of how you can make a resource sustainable. And we need to do that now because if we don't take a proactive look at it, we can do a lot of damage to ecosystems and species.”

Top photo: ASU Professor James Sulikowski poses with the jaw of a bull shark. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now