A Real Catch: Rutgers–Camden Alumnus Uses Doctoral Research in Australia to Help Reduce Extinction Threat to Shark Species

By Ed Moorhouse

First, Jaws made beachgoers think twice before going into the water. Then, Discovery Channel dedicated a weeklong block of summer programming to the predators at sea. Now, sharks are flying out of tornados in wildly inventive made-for-TV movies.

Rutgers-Camden alumnus Derek Dapp restrains a juvenile blacktip reef shark. Photo by Brian Kearney.

Rutgers-Camden alumnus Derek Dapp restrains a juvenile blacktip reef shark. Photo by Brian Kearney.

Sharks have always seeped into the imaginations — and nightmares — of people everywhere, as the fascination with the underwater dwellers continues to play a role in popular culture. But for Derek Dapp, every week is shark week.

The Vineland resident and Rutgers University–Camden alumnus is completing his doctoral research on the toothy carnivores at Monash University in Australia, where he is working toward a solution to a significant problem effecting the worldwide shark population.

“Twenty-five percent of shark species are threatened by extinction and the main reason behind that threat is fisheries capture,” Dapp says.

The 2010 Rutgers–Camden graduate explains that sharks and rays are often accidentally caught while fishermen are hunting other fish species like tuna or swordfish during large-scale fishing expeditions.

“Many species of sharks need to continuously move forward to breathe,” Dapp says. “If they’re not moving forward, they’re not passing water over their gills. So, when they get stuck on commercial fishing gear, their movements are inhibited and they slowly die from asphyxiation.”

Derek Dapp uses his background in biology and computer science to perform his Ph.D. research.

Derek Dapp uses his background in biology and computer science to perform his Ph.D. research.

Through his research, Dapp is identifying the shark species most likely to be accidentally caught by fisheries, as well as the reasons the sharks die, which varies from species to species. Armed with that information, he can suggest operational changes for commercial fishers so fewer sharks die.

“Some studies suggest that sharks control the population of middle-size predators in the ocean by hunting medium-size sharks, rays, and large fish,” says Dapp, who notes that a dying shark population disrupts the food chain, and fewer sharks may mean larger quantities of middle-size predators, which eat smaller fish and shellfish consumed by people.

“One of the biggest contributors to shark mortality is how long they are left on the line after capture,” Dapp says. “One way to avoid that is to change the amount of time fishermen can leave their gear out in the water.”

At Rutgers–Camden, Dapp earned his bachelor’s degree in general science, but he is also drawing upon invaluable knowledge from computer science courses he took at Rutgers–Camden that are helping him in his doctoral research. He used computer science to format large computer databases of fishery information and to develop advanced statistical models run by a computer.

Dapp untangles a sicklefin lemon shark from a fishing net. Photo by Selina Kent.

Dapp untangles a sicklefin lemon shark from a fishing net. Photo by Selina Kent.

“One misconception I had was that if I was going to be a biologist or environmental scientist, I only had to take courses related to that field,” Dapp says. “But you need to have a strong background in mathematics and statistics, too, in order to portray your results in a meaningful context.”

Dapp says that at Rutgers–Camden, he found a mentor in Rajiv Gandhi, an associate professor of computer science at Rutgers–Camden, who encouraged him to pursue research that combines his love for biology and computer science.

“I think my computer programming ability has really set me apart from my colleagues,” he says. “I don’t think I ever realized how applicable computer science would be to my field and have used my computer science skills extensively during my Ph.D. to advance my research.”

The Rutgers–Camden alumnus says Australia and the United States have some of the best fisheries management and monitoring programs to help keep shark populations stable. In U.S. waters, several shark species are beginning to recover from decades of overfishing. However, there are areas of the world where the problem is rampant and regulations are lax.

Dapp hopes his research contributes to finding a solution.

Dapp, who earned his master’s degree from Drexel University, expects to complete his doctoral degree requirements in April and then find a job in fisheries management.

“It was never my intention while I was at Rutgers to go into a career like this, but it was Rajiv’s guidance at Rutgers that helped to push me in that direction,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be here without that experience.”

Posted in: Scarlet Pride

Comments are closed.