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Don’t Worry About the Teeth, Sharks Still Need a Hug
September 14, 2008 - The New York Times
By Robin Finn

Stony Brook

IN the nick of time, just when it seemed to make sad sense to change the name of the Great South Bay to the Great Brown Bay, it seemed a stretch to find a healthy clam or scallop harvest in the North Shore fishing fields or an iffy proposition to take a post-storm swim at the beach, Ellen Pikitch has brought her world-class Institute for Ocean Conservation Science to Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. That’s the school with the 50-foot cabin cruiser hogging the parking lot.

Ms. Pikitch, a 51-year-old mother of three grown children, is a certified shark-hugger, wholly unembarrassed about uttering pronouncements like: “One of the great things about being a shark is that you never have to go to the dentist; lose a tooth, and another rolls into its place. It’s a great thing for a predator that relies on its teeth to make a living.”

The dental record-holder? Probably the sand tiger shark, which she says can produce 40,000 teeth over a lifetime, assuming it avoids becoming an ingredient in shark fin soup or specialty vitamins. Most sharks — and this fact causes her visible pain — are not living long, healthy lives these days.

But don’t hold that eccentricity against her. Not if you enjoy eating shellfish — yes, there’s an elaborate connection, and part of her unlikely mission in life (she has been a shark docent since high school, when she worked at the New York Aquarium) is explaining why we need to show sharks more love. Sturgeon, too.

Ms. Pikitch, who earned her Ph.D. in zoology from Indiana University, is the informed alarmist who, while working at the Wildlife Conservation Society, conducted research that led to a worldwide ban on the trade of wild sturgeon caviar in 2006 as well as a ban on United States imports of beluga caviar. Why worry about sturgeon? Because all but one of 27 species are endangered.

Still crave caviar? Eat farm-raised white sturgeon caviar from California, the first state to mandate the ecosystem-based ocean-management template Ms. Pikitch deems necessary to ocean rehabilitation. New York is the second state to mandate and finance ecosystem-based fisheries management; hence her motivation for moving the institute, which is supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, from the University of Miami to Stony Brook.

“It’s hard to really dumb this down,” she cautions, before giving it a try. “This thing about sharks playing a pivotal role in our ocean ecosystem is not just gobbledygook.

“Every time a shark disappears it diminishes our life in some way,” she says, sitting in an office dominated by hand-carved wooden sharks with authentic teeth and the impressive jawbone of a bronze whaler shark (one of the confirmed handful of people-eaters).

“How could it be that the loss of a shark population could be the reason that you don’t get to eat real scallops?” she adds, cutting to the chase.

“If people think it’s O.K. to kill sharks, whether for food or sport or just because they think sharks are dangerous killers and deserve it, they should look at the ramifications of not having sharks around. No sharks means more skates and rays, and more skates and rays means less scallops and oysters and shellfish because the rays are eating them before the fishermen can catch them. Shellfish have filtration systems that improve water quality; with fewer shellfish, water becomes more susceptible to aberrations like brown tides.”

Take away sharks, she says, and we end up compromising the ocean’s immune system.

On a stormy afternoon when she fretted about the raindrops making her hair frizz, Ms. Pikitch, who grew up in Bensonhurst, spent her summers at Coney Island and routinely dives into international waters in search of sharks (Guadalupe Island off Mexico is a favorite for its 200-foot visibility), makes her concerns crystal clear. Just the opposite of the troubled waters off Long Island’s South Shore.

“A few years ago I thought there were just a few disaster zones out there, but the more we know, the more we find it’s much worse than we thought: the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River is larger than the State of New Jersey, and dead zones are popping up all the way up and down the eastern coast of the U.S.,” she says. “We shouldn’t forget that New York is an ocean state.” (It is bordered by 1,850 miles of tidal shoreline.)

Ms. Pikitch, while diving off Mexico in a submersible cage, has gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a great white shark and come away unscathed. “Sharks don’t frighten me,” she says.

What scares her is their absence. “The attitude toward the ocean has changed, and hopefully not too little, too late. I can remember when the mantra was: ‘Solution to pollution is dilution.’ So we pipe sewage to the ocean floor and assume it, what, evaporates? Now we have pieces of plastic turning up at the North and South Poles. I’m a realist: we probably aren’t going to save everything, but what I’m hoping to do is prevent extinctions.”

She recasts a snippet of folk wisdom her mother routinely imparted when, as a teenager, Ms. Pikitch had her heart broken. “She used to tell me not to cry because men were just like fish, and there were plenty more fish in the sea. Now I would have to say that mom was right about the guys, but wrong about the fish.”


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