Sharkman: Andrej, you are one of the world's top shark researchers, scientist, author, explorer.... etc..... but how was it to grow up in a war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Andrej: Thank you for inviting me Sharkman, its always a pleasure my friend! Yes, I grew up in a war-torn former Yugoslavia and my family moved over 15 times - thus we changed schools, addresses, towns and even states. Growing up in a poverty of war was extremely difficult as it minimized all the possibilities for any dream to make true. But I never stopped believing. When look back now, I often can’t find words to describe my journey. It took so much faith, persistent hard-work, renunciation and “superhuman” efforts. Volunteering with the Shark Trust back in 2006. was the first sign that I can succeed in my dreams and remembering the Shark Alliance meeting in Brussels where we met for the first time back in 2009. –it was one of the most important crossroads I had in my life. Everything else, its just a history.
Sharkman: Yes 2009 when we were lobbying for the closure of shark finning loopholes and the action plan for sharks. What prompted you to study Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at university?
Andrej: Sharks, as well as all other animals that share this home with us, are more and more threatened every single day with a lot of taxa that we unfortunately permanently lose. Excessive and uncontrolled exploitation, habitat loss, pollution and war waste are just some of the threats that affects marine life every minute. Thus, I wanted to dedicate my life to understand the negative effects of anthropogenization (especially pollution and war waste) on certain populations and to further empower me do develop and propose on the species-specific revitalization and long-term in-situ conservation plans.
Sharkman: You went on to publish over 60 scientific papers and articles covering a wide range of subjects ranging from sea pollution to human hearts. How come such a diversity?
Andrej: I focus my scientific career exclusively on sharks, skates and rays. But of course, I am always there for my friends and colleagues that can use my knowledge, experience and skills in their research. As I primarily work on the fish pathology several colleagues invited me to help their studies on functional morphology, histology and pathology of other animals and humans as well.
Although I tend to publish a lot papers, for me there is only one success which is reflected in the tangible positive changes in our ecosystems. Thus, I aspire that my work make changes which will recover certain populations, contribute to the regional conservation and empower next generation of planetary stewards.
Sharkman: How and when did sharks come into your life?
Andrej: Sharks have always been around me. When I was playing with rag ball with my friends and when I started my volunteer work in the end of the Primarily school - hundreds of miles from the coast. Magazines and television shows were a great inspiration for me as I dreamed that one day I can be that grey haired explorer sharing my knowledge that might change the way we see these most misunderstood animals.
That dream came true a few years ago when I was appointed for the head of the Shark Tales study funded by National Geographic and also last year when I was elected as Plastic Shark expedition leader for Discovery Channel. In last years thank God I am able to reach millions of people through my short docudrama, lectures and workshops that I am giving in over 65 countries just last year.
Sharkman: That is a lot of travelling. Unlike many researchers, actually, you have specialised in Chondrichthyes in general not just sharks. Was there a special reason for this?
Andrej: I believe that the understanding of both Selachii and Batoidea clades as sister taxa in the phylogenetic sense could contribute far more in the terms of my studies instead of specialization in certain high-ranked taxa. Other reason for such specialization could be found in the lack of the knowledge about the sharks, skates and rays across the eastern Adriatic so I tried my best to obtain all samples I could have to contribute to their understanding.
Sharkman: Andrej, you also learned to scuba dive to be able to interact and observe these awesome creatures. Tell us about your first ever encounter with a shark.
Andrej: Its actually a very funny story! I saw dead lesser-spotted catsharks back in 2005. thrown as bycatch in Ražanj, Croatia. I was so fascinated with them and they were at about 3 m deep but I was sooo frightened to dive in to observe them. Ten years from that event, I have been diving with sand tigers, certain requiem sharks, zebras, nurses and many more. Besides, I've been diving in several seas, deep caves, lakes, mines and rivers.
I enjoy the close interactions and I am always truly amazed with their curiosity. Although I never encourage such activities, these monitoring are highly important for my studies and are directly linked with the studies that we are conducting in the labs – always only on bycatch in order to avoid killing and harming the animals.
Sharkman: You also founded SharkLab international and co-founded SharkLab – Malta. What is the work of these NGOs?
Andrej: Sharklab is my life's dream and my second family. It is who I am. After I spent my high school working with the Shark Trust from the UK I wanted to apply the same model of working on the regional and even the international scales. Thus, I proposed the idea to a good friend Greg Nowell who loved it! Together with your advices, help and support we have established the Sharklab International in the August of 2008 with HQ in Maltese archipelago and eastern Adriatic. Nowadays, Sharklab ADRIA grew into the regional Center for marine and freshwater biology which employs biologists, veterinarians, technical divers, ROV pilots and even the amateurs citizen scientists.
Sharklab ADRIA is dedicated to the better understanding and long-term in-situ conservation of the sharks, skates and rays in the Adriatic sea. In the last 10 years our researchers published over 150 original research papers and several books. Our projects, educations and other activities are directly funded and supported by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Rufford Foundation, Explorers Club, Waitt Foundation, Foundation Ensemble, IDEA WILD, PADI Foundation and many others. Beside target group (students, professors, lecturers) education we are working on the wider public education and raising the awareness through documentaries and partnership with worlds leading media companies such as National Geographic, NatGeo WILD, 21st Century FOX, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and over 200 local/regional media partners in Balkans.
Sharkman: Andrej, as you said earlier, we worked together as part of Shark Alliance during the “closing of loopholes in the shark finning campaign” of the EU fisheries policy. How do you see the global situation of sharks in general?
Andrej: Although we have witnessed certain positive changes in regional policies concerning the overfishing, finning, habitat loss and pollution I still strongly believe that shark populations are very fragile. Furthermore, slow growth, late maturity and low fertility rates further contribute to their vulnerability. Poor monitoring and improper identifications often leads to illusions on the biodiversity, areal, real state of populations and their conservation.
Many species, especially in the Mediterranean, are threatened with extinction – and there is so much more we must do to save them!
Sharkman: Our work never stops. Do you have a favourite shark?
Andrej: All sharks are favourite to me! In case I really have to chose that would be lesser-spotted catsharks, smoothhounds and hammerheads.
Sharkman: As already mentioned, your work has attracted National Geographic and you have already been involved in quite a few documentaries. How did that come about?
Andrej: I had applied to lead a study for the National Geographic back in 2017, and that is how we started the Shark Tales project. Since the beginning of my engagement in NatGeo I was featured at the Sharkfest 2018 and 2020, and I have lectured numerous NatGeo conferences and events across Europe and USA. Furthermore, I am contributing author to several NatGeo publications and I am elected as one of the 15 early career leaders at the National Geographic (2020-2021). Work with NatGeo and NatGeo WILD has significantly contributed to my career as it empowered me to reach far wider public and to be far more recognized for my work with different governments.
Sharkman: You are Head of the National Geographic Shark Tales. What is that?
Andrej: Shark Tales is a program funded through the National Geographic Society (Washington, D.C.) which is focused on the understanding of the effects of pollution and habitat loss on the elasmobranch health and disease development. The program actually presents the fundamentals of my professional life and include cutting-edge science in order to revitalize and conserve threatened species in the Mediterranean (especially the Adriatic).
Sharkman: Congratulations also on being inducted in the “Explorers Club”, and for being chosen to lead the ground-breaking scientific studies of the “Plastic Sharks” expeditions. What does this involve?
Andrej: Thank you so much! I was elected among only five more peers to be one of the very first expedition leaders for the EC Discovery Channel. In the era of plastics, our seas face daily excessive pollution, thus many species are being affected, resulting in dramatic declines in certain populations and specific, so far unknown, disease development. Since so far no attention is given to the better understanding of the effects of (micro) plastic and the possible mitigation of pollution we aim to contribute to such understanding and revitalization of the affects species/habitats. The project will uniquely combine the extensive field expeditions in the Malostonski bay and nearby localities with precise laboratory analysis and further education.
Sharkman: Are there any dreams that you still have to do?
Andrej: Actually yes, I still have the same dream to save the sharks from the extinction and secure the cohabitation of two of Earth's top predators – sharks and humans.
Sharkman: If you had to send out a message to the world, what would it be?
Andrej: The Rufford Foundation has empowered me to work on the unique regional protection of the sharks, skates and rays which is one of my most important activities in last years. There is one thing that I have learned and I always share with the rest of the world….. Its my fault, its your fault and it is everyone's fault and its high time to take the responsibility and protect the world around us!
Sharkman: So very true words my friend. I wish you all the success in the world.
Andrej: Thanks! You know that all your help, support and advices was always appreciated.
Sharkman: You are welcome my friend. I am glad that I could be of help to you.
Andrej it is always a pleasure to meet you and thank you for being with us here at SHARKMAN'S WORLD.
Andrej Gajic, Alex Sharkman and Greg Nowell
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