Marine biologist James Sulikowski brings his Shark and Fish Conservation Lab to ASU
This summer, when James Sulikowski announced on Twitter that he was moving his Shark and Fish Conservation Lab from the University of New England to Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, he left a lot of people scratching their heads.
Why would an internationally recognized marine life expert move from a prime coastal location to the middle of the Sonoran Desert to expand his research lab?
“There’s this land shark that nobody knows about,” Sulikowski said. “It's one of those great mysteries I'm trying to solve.”
He’s kidding, of course. (We hope.)
“Arizona State is an amazing university and the way in which they go about their mission and the opportunities available here are things that I was really interested in being part of,” he said. “So it might seem crazy but my research takes me everywhere — I do work in New England, the Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico, I collaborate with individuals in Canada — so this is just another geographical location for me.”
Sulikowski, who assumed his new post as professor and associate director of New College’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in August, hopes to add some of Arizona’s many freshwater offerings, as well as John Steinbeck’s fabled Sea of Cortez that separates the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico to that list of locations during his tenure here.
In 25 years as a marine biologist, Sulikowski has caught, tagged and tracked aquatic life as diverse as the cunning anglerfish, the lucrative scallop and his current favorite, the porbeagle, a cousin of the infamous great white shark. He’s been bitten by sharks a total of three times but he doesn’t hold a grudge.
“We are not on their menu,” he said. Most shark bites are either accidental or cases of mistaken identity that go south because, yes, their teeth are very sharp and they can do a lot of damage very quickly. That’s because throughout their lives, sharks’ teeth are constantly falling out and being replaced by new ones, like some sort of conveyor belt of freshly sharpened mouth daggers.
“Oftentimes the sharks that do bite people are relatively small and they're just going up to see what it is and then realizing it’s not what they want and then leaving,” Sulikowski said. “But even if its teeth are just touching you. … We’re like the warm butter and their teeth are like the hot knife. But it’s not a premeditated thing.”
He points out that globally, there are only about 150 human-shark encounters per year (the University of Florida’s 2018 International Shark Attack File puts that number even lower, at 130 alleged incidents of human-shark interaction), yet roughly 400 million people go swimming in the ocean off the coast of Florida alone every year. If you’re still worried, he suggests avoiding known hot spots like Cape Cod and the Cape of Good Hope off the coast of Africa, and avoiding certain behavior like swimming at dusk or dawn, swimming near seal colonies or wearing shiny things that mimic fish scales.
Sulikowski actually is more worried about drowning in the ocean than he is of sharks.
“In all of our outreach we try to impress a consciousness about how important sharks are to the ecosystem and that they're a lot more afraid of us than we should be of them,” he said.
When Sulikowski was a child, his family lived for a brief period of time in San Antonio. One of his earliest memories is of a day at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico when he happened upon a lifeless shark that had washed ashore. Far from frightening, the experience invigorated the young Sulikowski, sparking a lifelong fascination.