Baby sharks help break down barriers

Baby sharks help break down barriers

Baby sharks help break down barriers

Every year, 13 million tons of plastic leaks into the ocean and contributes to killing over 100 000 marine animals.

World Oceans Day was founded by the United Nations to raise awareness of this global environmental catastrophe, and to unite everyone in sustainably managing and caring for the world’s oceans. 2019 celebrates World Oceans Day with the theme of ‘gender equality’, and hopes to empower women and their contribution to the fight against pollution and climate change.

To celebrate this year’s World Oceans Day, JCU spoke to ‘fish physiologist’ Dr Jodie Rummer, whose impressive work in marine science is breaking down barriers for aspiring female scientists. Jodie’s rise to being a prominent voice for women in science began when she was young.

“I grew up in Illinois, in the U.S. – not surrounded by oceans at all. The only experience I had was from watching National Geographic and other documentaries on TV. I was given a mask and snorkel set for my birthday when I was five or six, and it was all over for me - I could breathe underwater and that was the best thing ever!”

But it was what Jodie didn’t see on TV that inspired her most.

“I couldn’t have told you the names of any famous female marine scientists back then. I didn’t have any female role models,” she said.

Dr Jodie Rummer releases a baby shark

Dr Jodie Rummer releases a baby shark during a shark research study in French Polynesia

She has been on a mission to change that for the next generation of aspiring female scientists and has since achieved some remarkable milestones in her career.

As well as becoming a senior fellow at James Cook University, Jodie has given a TEDx talk, been featured on the Discovery Channel and even raced fish against Michael Phelps.

“One of my catch phrases is, ‘If you can see it, you can become it’. So it’s important for me to be a visible role model and show that next generation – perhaps that nine-year-old girl growing up, perhaps surrounded by farmland – that you don’t have to be an old white guy in a lab coat. You can be outdoorsy and feminine and sporty… whatever you want to be… and still be a successful scientist.”

Jodie leads a large research program working with baby sharks in French Polynesia. She studies the physiology of these sharks to monitor how they can adapt and cope with changes in their environment.

“Fish are amazing athletes – they use their athletic abilities to live in almost every body of water on the planet,” Jodie said.

Jodie and her team conduct non-lethal studies on the baby sharks to find out how much they’re breathing before and after exercise. They can then change the sharks’ environmental conditions to mimic the year 2050 or the year 2100 to see how elevated temperatures affects the sharks’ breathing rates. Their results help scientists understand how sharks and other marine life are coping with the conditions that are coming with climate change.

One contributing factor to the long-term health of sharks and other marine life is the amount of plastic pollution entering our waterways and oceans. Jodie says that the first step to solving this problem is educating people on where their rubbish actually goes.

“When we throw our rubbish in the bin, we never see it again. But it doesn’t just disappear – it goes somewhere. Depending on which country you live in, it could get put on a barge and dumped in the ocean. Or it could get buried or dumped on an island. But unless that rubbish is made of organic material, it won’t degrade back into the earth. It will eventually run off into a water source.”

“I grew up in Illinois – the middle of the United States, right next to the Mississippi river, the largest river in the U.S. That river drains into the Gulf of Mexico, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean. Everything is connected and it will get back into the oceans at some point.”

Dr Jodie Rummer and her research team tag sharks in a study

Dr Jodie Rummer and her research team tag sharks in a study in French Polynesia

It seems like an impossible problem, but Jodie is adamant that the choices of one person can make all the difference.

“What about Molly Steer from Cairns, who made that decision for straws not to be used anymore and started a revolution. That one voice? That made a world of difference. What about Greta Thunberg, who started the climate strike for kids coming out of their schools on that Friday afternoon? That started a revolution,” she said.

“We have to use our voices, lead by example and have amazing conversations with people about the steps that we’ve taken to help the planet.”

“We vote with our dollars. If you purchase something packaged in single-use plastic, you’re saying that’s OK. But you go to a whole foods store and use a reusable container, you’re voting for sustainable packaging.”

Some other ways to cut back on plastic and greenhouse gas emissions include riding your bicycle to work, using reusable straws and coffee cups, and switching to a predominantly plant-based diet.

Jodie hopes that more people can learn about the harmful effects of pollution on the ocean and make changes to protect Australia’s unique marine life.

“There are lots of different faces and voices in science today, and now, more than ever we need those brilliant minds – all genders, all cultures, every background possible – to help solve the problems our planet is facing. That’s my inspiration.”

Find out more about World Oceans Day and how you can #BeatPlasticPollution.

If you’re interested in marine biology like Dr. Jodie Rummer, consider studying marine studies and aquaculture at JCU.

Published 10 Jun 2020

Featured JCU researcher

Dr Jodie Rummer
Dr Jodie Rummer
Dr. Jodie Rummer is an Australian Research Council (ARC) early career Discovery fellow, Assistant Professor of Research at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University (JCU) and was the 2015-2016 recipient of the highly