The Sharkman meets Greg Nowell

Hello Greg, welcome to Sharkman’s World

Sharkman: How and when did your interest in sharks start?

Greg: I have always had a passion for the natural world and a love of the sea, even when I lived in the UK. Sharks and the creatures living below the surface always interested me, but in the UK I had very limited opportunity to explore this. Exploring this fascinating environment was restricted to when I went on holiday. 

Sharkman: You are co-founder of Sharklab International. How did that come about?

Greg: When I moved to Malta in 2007, I found that all of a sudden, I had time to start exploring the marine environment more. I started to network online looking for more information and making connections. Through this I met Andrej Gajic, and after many fascinating and detailed chats we came up with the idea of Sharklab. We focused our energy on these often-misunderstood creatures, something we both had a joint passion about. The initial idea was to create an organisation which would look at the world like a jigsaw and encourage others to share what was happening with sharks in their local area and send us that information so we could see the real time global picture. 

Sharkman: That was the same time when you branched out and  founded Sharklab-Malta. What was the objective behind this decision?

Greg: The idea came about after moving to Malta when I had more time. I started to investigate if anyone, or any organisation, was studying sharks and their relatives in the Maltese Archipelago.  In the meantime, Andrej and I decided to branch out, with me starting Sharklab-Malta and Andrej creating Sharklab-Adria, both under the umbrella of Sharklab International.

This allowed me to begin focusing on my own local area, which of course is how you and I met, and we have been connected ever since. You, of course, had a very active “Sharkman’s World” however this covered much more than just Malta itself, so it was possible to gather data which was not available in the local situation. Sharklab-Malta filled that gap and with the main focus on research, raising awareness and making a difference locally, we have been able to really focus our efforts on those goals. I believe we have achieved this, and continue to create a better understanding locally about the real issues facing sharks. We have been able to do something practical about it.

Sharkman: I am glad that you took that step to fill that gap.  Greg, part of your research includes identifying areas around our islands which may be breeding grounds for some species of sharks. Have you had any luck?

Greg:  One of the long-term objectives of the organisation is to find an area where sharks frequent. The sad fact is, although we have managed to research many areas, sharks remain sadly absent. Occasional sighting reports offer glimmers of hope and reports from fishers give indications of heightened activity. We are yet to identify, without doubt, breeding or nursery areas. We do have some interesting projects in the pipeline, which may partly answer your question, but it is still a work in progress. Hopefully in the future we will be able to answer this more positively.

Sharkman: You and your team also work together with the local fisheries. What does this work involve?

Greg: The work and relationship with local fisheries began back in 2008, when I started to gather data on landing of sharks, skates, and rays at the wholesale fish market in Valletta. This was an eye-opening experience and gave me the opportunity to study sharks and their relatives first-hand. Through regular visits the relationship and ultimately the support of fisheries has grown. It is my opinion that a strong working relationship is essential, in order to protect where needed, and change policies and regulations. The wholesale market has now moved to Marsa, but we still continue to gather essential landings data several times per week and continue to maintain a good working relationship with fisheries.

Dead sharks at the fish market

Sharkman: This relationship has brought in very good results. I believe it was here that you first discovered the shark egg capsules right?

Greg: Yes, it was during a visit to the wholesale market in 2011 that an encapsulated egg from Scyliorhinus canicula (Smallerspotted catshark) was removed. The egg, after being recovered and placed into a small aquarium with seawater, began to develop and so did an idea. The idea was that it may be possible to actively remove eggs from landed dead sharks, and after hatching, release them back where they belong.

Sharkman: You pioneered the very successful recovery and release program. What were the difficulties that you initially faced with this project?

Greg: The recovery and release program, which followed the first egg recovery, has now become a hugely successful part of the organisation’s work. It has been documented in a scientific journal, as well as being shared at European Elasmobranch Conference level. Previously no other organisation had created a project where eggs from dead oviparous sharks were actively recovered, hatched, and released back where they belong. This was a unique project.

Smallerspotted catshark eggs (Scyliorhinus canicula)

This program took many years to develop to the level it is today, and our first shark was actually released in 2013. 

The biggest challenge we had to overcome was that mortality was high as the embryos developed through the early stages. Further detailed research on potential breeding areas in the Mediterranean and around Malta indicated that based on their location and depth, perhaps temperature could be a major factor. We invested in a cooling system to lower the temperature and as we did so, we saw the mortality level decrease significantly. 

This project has raised a lot of interest around the world. It has now been setup following our lead and advice in both Spain and Tenerife, with ongoing conversations in other countries.

Sharkman: How many Sharks have been released since?

Greg:  To date we have released 320 sharks, with the support of the Malta National Aquarium and Maltaqua.

The first two Smallerspotted catshark pups successfully hatched

Sharkman: That is awesome. Some of the recent released sharks have been tagged right? Was there any feedback of encounters or tags returned?

Greg: Yes, Of the 3 species of oviparous sharks landed in Malta, Scyliorhinus stellaris (Nursehound / Bull Huss) is the largest, growing to an adult size of around 120 cm. It is this shark which we have now started to tag with the support of the Malta National Aquarium. 

The pups before release are around 30 – 40 cm in length and strong enough for a simple floy tag to be attached to the dorsal fin. The idea is, should a tagged shark get caught in the future, the information obtained will help to understand better the rate of survival and rate of growth. It will enable us to compare the catch and release locations. So far no sharks with tags have been reported.

Smallerspotted catshark ready to be released

Sharkman: A few years ago, you were involved in the rescue of a beached Blue shark. What happened?

Greg: I received a phone call from Fisheries saying that a shark had been washed up along the coast near Pembroke, on the eastern side of Malta. I was with Pamela Mason at the time, one of our core members of Sharklab and we confirmed we would go and see if we could help. There was little information given on the species or size, but we were told a small group of people would lead us to the exact spot. When we arrived there was no crowd, that would arrive later, but there were 2 police officers standing on a raised rocky area looking down towards the water. 

We got out of the car and as we introduced ourselves, we looked down and saw a 2.5 – 3 metre Blue shark being pushed against the rocks by the waves. I took out my phone and keys and passed them to Pam who took some pictures and I climbed down to take a better look. 

It was alive but its pectoral fins were trapped between 2 large rocks and there was no way it could free itself. It was obviously tired but using the water to help lift the weight of this beautiful shark I managed to free the first then the second fin from the rocks. Using the water to help carry the weight I managed to turn it, so it was pointing back out to sea and with a lot of encouragement and sheer effort managed to get it to move out into the water. By this point there was now a small crowd gathering. 

The shark slowly made its way out away from the rocks, but the waves made it very difficult, it was eventually pushed back to the rocks. Again, using the water to carry the weight I turned the shark and again managed to get it back away from the rocks. Now tired, cold, and saturated, I waited to see if it would get washed back, but the last I saw was it slowly moving further and further away until it finally disappeared from sight. There were no reports of the shark being washed back to the shore, I believe it managed to recover itself after the ordeal and headed out into the safety of deeper water.  

A truly amazing experience. Asked after the event, if I ever feared that the shark would bite, I can honestly say no. There was an amazing connection at the time between me and the shark and I truly believe It knew I was there to help.

Greg returning a beached Blue shark to the sea

Sharkman: Your contribution towards shark conservation has resulted in more species of sharks being protected here in Malta. How many are protected now?

Greg: Originally, 2 species of sharks and 1 species of ray were protected in 1999. Since Sharklab-Malta began, there are now 12 species of sharks and 5 species of skate/ray protected by Maltese regulations and 1 species of shark covered by EU legislation. This is still not enough, as there are others which need protecting, or we face the real possibility of losing them in our waters forever.

Sharkman: Yes, we need to keep pushing for more. Greg, we know that education is the basis for conservation and Sharklab is heavily involved in this aspect. You organise many talks and exhibitions throughout the year. Have you noticed a change in the mentality of the people towards sharks?

Greg: Yes, I can honestly say that the attitude towards sharks in Malta has changed. When I look back at the attitude I encountered in 2008, compared to now, the difference is significant. There is more interest in what lives in our local waters and the impact healthy seas have on our lives. 

Sharks as we know are essential for maintaining that balance, and it is this key message which is starting to sink in. Through education and interaction what we are doing is making a huge difference. 

Engaging with the young and inspiring them to want to learn more does not just change their views, but also the people they come into contact with, family and friends etc. It is through this chain that the message is spread.

Giving an educational talk.

Sharkman: Any future projects for Sharklab?

Greg: There are many in the pipeline, for example: 

* develop the recovery and release project to include landed skate species  

* focus further research on breeding and nursery area identification

* return to places we both love to explore, like the island of Filfla and many others 

I am sure the next time we chat the list of future plans will be longer.

Sharkman: Is there a wish, or a dream that you still wish to achieve?

Greg: I have to say that, in all the time I have been researching, and been an ambassador for sharks, I am yet to dive or swim with them in their world. One day I am sure that opportunity will come. In the meantime, I am glad and humbled that I have the chance to do what I do, and inspire others to be involved and care about these truly beautiful animals.

Sharkman: I wish you many wonderful shark dives. Let me know if you need contacts for the best shark encounters.  Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?

Greg: There is still much to do to preserve the beauty of our oceans and all of the amazing animals which call it home. We can all, be part of making the difference, so stand up and be part of shaping the future of our oceans.

Sharkman: Greg, you  have certainly left a huge mark in shark conservation here in Malta. Thank you for all that you are doing and for being with us here at Sharkman’s World.

Greg Nowell & Alex "Sharkman"

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