The Sharkman meets Andrej Gajić

Hello Andrej, welcome to Sharkman’s World

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, talking to you is always a pleasure my friend!  Yes, I grew up in a war-torn former Yugoslavia. My family moved over 15 times, so we changed schools, addresses, towns and even states. Growing up in the poverty of war was extremely difficult, as it minimised all possibilities of making any dream come true. I never stopped believing. When I 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 could succeed in my dreams. I remember 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, is just history.

Sharkman: Yes I remember 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 planet with us, are more and more threatened every single day. There are also a lot of taxa that are unfortunately already extinct. Some of the threats that affect marine life every day are excessive and uncontrolled exploitation, habitat loss, pollution and war waste. I wanted to dedicate my life to understand the negative effects of human anthropogenization (especially pollution and war waste) on certain populations. I aim to further empower myself to develop and propose 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. 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 fish pathology, several colleagues have 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. I aspire that my work will make changes which will help recover certain populations, contribute to regional conservation, and empower the next generation of planetary stewards.

Sharkman: How and when did sharks come into your life?

Andrej: Sharks have always interested me. When I was playing with a rag ball with my friends, when I started my volunteering work in the end of the primary school – hundreds of miles from the coast. 

Magazines and television shows were a great inspiration for me. I dreamed that one day, I could be that grey haired explorer, sharing my knowledge, changing the way we see these most misunderstood animals.

That dream came true a few years ago, when I was appointed as the Head of the Shark Tales study funded by National Geographic. And again last year, when I was elected by Discovery Channel as a Plastic Shark expedition leader. During these last years, I thank God, I have been able to reach millions of people through my short docudrama, lectures and workshops. I reached people 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 believed that understanding both Selachii and Batoidea clades as sister taxa in the phylogenetic sense could contribute far more in terms of my studies, instead of specialising in certain high-ranked taxa. Another reason for such specialisation was the lack of knowledge about sharks, skates and rays across the eastern Adriatic. I have tried my best to obtain all the samples I can 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: It’s actually a very funny story! I saw dead Lesser-spotted catsharks back in 2005, thrown away as bycatch in Ražanj, Croatia. I was fascinated with them. They were at about 3 metres deep but I was too frightened to dive in to observe them. It is ten years since that event, and now I have been diving with Sand tigers, certain requiem sharks, Zebras, Nurses and many more. I have also been diving in several seas, deep caves, lakes, mines and rivers.

I enjoy the close interactions and I am always truly amazed with shark’s curiosity. Although I never encourage such activities, monitoring is highly important for my studies and is directly linked with our laboratory studies. We only use 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 a regional and even international scale. I proposed the idea to a good friend, Greg Nowell, who loved it! Together with your advice, help and support we established Sharklab International in August 2008 with headquarters in the Maltese archipelago and eastern Adriatic. Nowadays, Sharklab ADRIA has grown into a regional centre for marine and freshwater biology which employs biologists, veterinarians, technical divers, ROV pilots and even amateur citizen scientists.

Sharklab ADRIA is dedicated to the better understanding, and long-term in-situ, conservation of 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, education 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. As well as our target group for education (students, professors, lecturers)  we are working on wider public education and raising 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 the 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 now?

AndrejWe have witnessed certain positive changes in regional policies concerning overfishing, finning, habitat loss and pollution, but 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 identification often lead to illusions and incorrect assumptions about their biodiversity, areal, the real state of their 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 favourites to me! If I really had to choose then it 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?

AndrejI 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 with NatGeo I was featured at the Sharkfest in 2018 and 2020. I have lectured at numerous NatGeo conferences and events across Europe and the USA. Furthermore, I am contributing author to several NatGeo publications and I was elected as one of 15 early career leaders at the National Geographic (2020-2021). Work with NatGeo and NatGeo WILD has significantly contributed to my career. It has empowered me, with a much wider reach to the public, and has also allowed my work to be far better recognised by different governments.

Sharkman: You are Head of the National Geographic Shark Tales. What is that?

Andrej: Shark Tales is a programme funded through the National Geographic Society (Washington, D.C.) which is focused on understanding the effects of pollution and habitat loss, on  elasmobranch’s health and disease development. The programme actually presents the fundamentals of my professional life and includes cutting-edge science in order to revitalise and conserve threatened species in the Mediterranean (especially the Adriatic).

Sharkman: Congratulations 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 other peers to be one of the very first expedition leaders for the EC Discovery Channel.

Since the invention of plastics, our seas face daily excessive pollution, with many species being affected. This results in dramatic declines in certain populations and specific, so far unknown, disease development. So far no attention has been given to better understanding the effects of (micro) plastics and the possible reduction of pollution. 

We aim to contribute to the body of knowledge, and the  understanding and revitalisation of species/habitats. The project will uniquely combine 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 extinction and secure the co-habitation of two of the 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 sharks, skates and rays. One of my most important activities in recent years.  

There is one thing that I have learned, and I always share with the rest of the world … it’s my fault, it’s your fault, and it is everyone’s fault, and it’s high time for us to take the responsibility and protect the world around us.

Sharkman: Very true words my friend, I wish you all the success in the world.

Andrej: Thanks! You know that all your help, support and advice 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 to have you here on Sharkman’s world. Thank you.

Andrej Gajic, Alex Sharkman and Greg Nowell

More information about Andrej Gajić, his work and Sharks

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