In the summer before he started first grade, James Sulikowski ’91 found himself eyeballing a shark on the sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. It was three or four feet long, with its telltale dorsal fin and sharp, menacing teeth. Fortunately for the young boy, the shark was not only scary, but dead.
Most little kids would have been racing in record time for a parent. For Sulikowski, it was his mind that was doing the racing. “I was fascinated by it,” he says.
That fascination, sparked on a Texas beach, has led Sulikowski on more than 100 expeditions focused largely on our pearly-white-toothed friends. Nicknamed “Dr. Shark,” the professor of marine science at the University of New England has made a career out of helping shark conservation and commercial fishing coexist. “We can protect while letting people who fish for a living make a living,” says Sulikowski. “In the past, to try and conserve those shark populations, you’d have to kill some sharks to find out information, especially on reproduction.”
But those who study shark populations and reproduction these days have traded dart guns and nets for technology, along with a little bravery. A few years ago, Sulikowski adapted human sonogram technology to be used on sharks in order to save their lives. The sharks are safer, but the researchers might not be. “You have to have the shark close enough to use the technology to detect pregnancy,” he explains.
Sulikowski’s shark knowledge earned him a spot last year on the Discovery Channel’s summer phenomenon, Shark Week. Discovery documented the researcher and his team on Tiger Beach in the Bahamas as they captured 20 sharks and discovered that 15 of them were pregnant. They were able to tag the fish and ensure the females’ safety from commercial fishermen, so the dorsal-finned pups had a stronger chance of survival. “We’re able to link technologies now so that with a pregnant shark, you know where she goes, and you hope she finds spots critical for survival. You could create a marine—protected area there or marine preserve where no commercial fishing is allowed to take place.”
Sulikowski’s work can certainly be dangerous. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “When a 15-foot shark comes up, you always have in the back of your mind that you could lose an arm or a leg.” But Dr. Shark is driven by curiosity. “For me, it’s always about being inquisitive, testing what we think we know, asking what we don’t know, and figuring out new ways to come up with answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask just a few years ago.”
Sulikowski will be part of a new Shark Week episode to air this summer, in which he will use advanced tracking technology on species within the Gulf of Maine. As he did in his research with sonograms, he’ll be searching for understudied shark species that are in particular need of research and conservation efforts. “There is still so much we do not know about sharks, and much of what we do know we are just now learning through the use of this new technology,” he says. “I love being part of this process and the positive impacts it has on the species and the ecosystem in which they live.”