The Waves that James Sulikowski Makes

Dr. Shark.

That was the name two Portland radio talk show hosts used in an interview during the Discovery Channel’s annual shark week. And that’s the name someone scrawled next to his office door with a bold black marker.

Inside the office are about 20 sets of large white shark jaws with teeth—he points to some of them hammerhead, mako, scalloped hammerhead, dusky shark (“pretty rare”), bull shark, lemon shark, sandbar, black tip, finetooth.

But it is Professor James Sulikowski’s studies of a small controversial shark, the spiny dogfish, that have affected the lives of thousands of East Coast commercial fishermen and possibly more in the future.

The controversy surfaced in 2011 in stories in the New York Times, CBS, and the Wall Street Journal, all of which quoted Sulikowski. Conservationists warned that the dogfish needed more protection while the commercial fishing industry believed the dogfish numbers were underestimated and that the little sharks were eating valuable groundfish.

With two grants totaling $564,000, Sulikowski and his students conducted a comprehensive study of the life cycle and movement patterns of the dogfish. They found that the dogfish bred prolifically.

Citing that reseach, the Marine Stewardship Council in 2012 certified the spiny dogfish fishery as sustainable. Certification allowed for the species to be shipped overseas without controversy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised its quotas on the numbers of dogfish that could be harvested.

“The ability to make change is what drives me,” Sulikowski says. “My research is on the border of ecological physiology and fisheries management. We’re helping commercial fishermen maintain their way of life and helping the oceans stay balanced.”

Sulikowski first got interested in marine life as a small child in San Antonio, Texas, about an hour from the coast. His father, who was in the Air Force, took him fishing, and he would also walk the beaches investigating creatures and debris that washed up.

After graduation from Denison University in Ohio in biology, he went on for an M.S. in marine science at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., an M.S. in physiology at DePaul University and his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of New Hampshire.

He then took a job running the University of Florida’s shark program for a couple of years before coming to UNE. “I’ve had the best of both worlds — the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of Mexico, my primary spots for research.”

At any one time, Sulikowski has 8 to 12 students—graduate and undergraduate—working on his and their own projects. Training the next generation of marine scientists is a priority.

” I want my students to go out on boats now, collect the data, and do all those different things because they need to be taught the right way. They need opportunities where they can make mistakes and learn from mistakes so they can be their own decision makers. They have a lot a lot of responsibility, and each one has stepped up to the challenge.”

The next generation may also include one or more of his three daughters, ages 6, 7 and 9, “who absolutely love marine science.” He took his 7-year-old along on a UNE class trip to the Gulf of Mexico. “She was down there tagging sharks and all that kind of cool stuff and loving it.”

The research Sulikowski and his students conduct has continued to drive change—both in terms of federal policy and in understanding the Saco River and Gulf of Maine ecosystems.

For instance, in 2011, based on research they conducted with colleagues from the New England Aquarium, NOAA increased the amount of skate that fishermen could land for the year from 31 million to 48 million pounds, benefiting fishermen up and down the East Coast.

In 2009, Sulikowki’s team got a huge surprise when they took a television team out on the Saco River for a story on the research he is conducting on Atlantic sturgeon. With the camera rolling, Sulikowski and his students pulled up a short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered species, the first on record found in the Saco River. "It's crazy," he said on camera. "Nobody had any idea that we would catch a shortnose." More have turned up since.

His sturgeon research reached a national audience when Jeff Corwin of the television program Ocean Mysteries brought his team to Maine in 2012 to film Sulikowski for a segment of the show that aired in January 2013 on ABC.

Looking to the future, Dr. Shark wants to look at fishery management issues from an ecosystem perspective. “Rather than one or two species, our studies are now Gulf of Maine-wide or New England fisheries-wide. We want to try to answer those big, big dynamic questions.”