Dana Bethea Home Page

Dana Bethea

Official Title:  Research Ecologist with the Shark Population Assessment Group

Location:  NOAA Fisheries Southeast Fisheries Science Center Panama City Laboratory Panama City, FL

Where you were born or grew up: I was born in north Georgia and lived there until I was 16. I finished high school in southwestern Louisiana.

Education:  I have a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (GO EAGELS! SOUTHERN MISS TO THE TOP!) and a M.Sc in Zoology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina (GO PACK! NCSU!).

1. Your earliest memory...how did you become interested in studying sharks? (elasmobranchs)

I have always loved the outdoors and was drawn to the ocean at an early age, but I did not start out wanting to study sharks. My first love as a child was the killer whale. Religiously I watched Danger Bay, a TV show that followed the adventures of a west-coast Canadian marine biologist and his family. My parents took me and my sister to SeaWorld in Orlando one summer and that’s where we realized I was much more excited by ocean critters than I ever was by Disney princesses. I dreamed of being the woman training and swimming with the killer whales. Throughout elementary and high school, I kept the photo I took that summer of a woman perfectly and gracefully balanced on a killer whale’s nose tucked away in my journal.

Throughout undergrad, I enrolled and excelled in a broad variety of biology, chemistry, and math classes. It was not until an intense 5-week Marine Science course at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory during my final semester that my curiosity in marine ecology and coastal ecosystems was piqued. And, even then, sharks were not on my radar. On the last day of classes, I saw a flyer on a bulletin board advertising a field-intensive internship with Dr. John Carlson at NOAA Fisheries in Panama City, FL. Unsure of the next steps I should take after undergrad (Enroll in vet school? Become a science teacher? Graduate school?), I took the entire flyer, emailed John that afternoon, and started the internship two weeks later.

I continued as an unpaid intern with the Shark Population Assessment Group for an entire year, waiting tables on nights and weekends to make ends meet. This is where my awareness of elasmobranchs blossomed. I helped in the field with the juvenile shark monitoring survey and sectioned and aged shark vertebrae in the wet lab. I saw first-hand how the lack of life history characteristics, distribution and abundance, and basic biology for most coastal elasmobranchs made life difficult for stock assessment managers. How could we possibly manage for productive and sustainable fisheries or conserve and recover populations when we knew so little? Honing in on the deficiency of quantitative feeding ecology studies for sharks, I worked with John to develop a project that ending up becoming my M.Sc thesis.


2. What research are you currently working on?

I am currently serving a three-month rotational assignment at NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg, FL, with the Protected Resources Division to gain experience with Section 4 (determination of endangered and threatened species) and Section 7 (interagency cooperation) of the Endangered Species Act. This assignement is aimed at developing a more collaborative relationship between the Science Center and Regional Office.

When I return to the Panama City Lab later this summer, I will continue to serve as principal investigator and field party chief for the Gulf of Mexico Shark Pupping and Nursey (GULFSPAN) Survey, a fishery-independent survey that monitors the abundance of juvenile sharks in coastal areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. I will also continue my work with the Smalltooth Sawfish Implementation Team, conducting the juvenile abundance monitoring survey in Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand National Wildlife Refuge.

I am currently collaborating on several projects, including a reanalysis of the age and growth of the lemon shark and the development of a predictive model for juvenile smalltooth sawfish habitat use. I will be presenting a talk titled, “Growth Rates of Smalltooth Sawfish, Pristis pectinata, Using Length-frequency and Tag-recapture Data” in the International Sawfish Symposium at the 2016 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in New Orleans, Louisiana, this July.


3. Describe the most interesting encounter you have had with a shark.

After 15 years of studying elasmobranchs, I have a healthy respect for their wildness and power. Like all wild animals, sharks deserve respect and should be given plenty of space. That said, I have thousands of shark stories from my time spent in the field, but these mostly involve bringing animals out of the water and up on to the boat. I have only been lucky enough to see one species underwater in the wild. I was snorkeling with colleagues while on assignment in the Bahamas. While I hovered at the surface, breathing slowly, I watched as a blacktip reef shark swam back and forth adjacent to the reef. It was beautiful.

Since 2009, I have conducted research expeditions associated with the NOAA Juvenile Smalltooth Sawfish Abundance Monitoring Survey (ESA Section 10 permit ESA-17787 and Everglades National Park permit EVER-2016-0016). The smalltooth sawfish was listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2003 is currently the only elasmobranch listed as such. I am one of a handful of scientists nation-wide that is permitted to touch and perform field research on this animal. Every new, baby sawfish I encounter is a reminder that I am on the front lines doing my part to collect important biological and ecological information that will help conserve this species.


4. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this line of work?

A lack of proper funding is the number one thing that inhibits scientific research. If you believe scientific research is important, contact your legislators and tell them how you feel. You can also get involved with and donate to science based non-profits such as Shark Advocates International.


5. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?

I am most proud of being the lead author on the 2014 publication, “Distribution and community structure of coastal sharks in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.” This study is the columniation of nine years of collaborative and standardized field work in 11 inshore areas across 500 miles of eastern Gulf of Mexico coastline. Our results suggest that estuarine conditions adjacent to river mouths may be the primary thing affecting juvenile shark assemblages across similar latitudes. This study is the first to note differences in shark community structure between the western and eastern Gulf of Mexico due to an apparent zoogeographic break occurring between Mobile Bay, Alabama, and St. Andrew Bay, Florida. It also provides important insight into the habitat use of a variety of coastal shark species and can be used to better manage these species through the determination of critical habitat.


6. What do you like most/least about your work?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is working with young people. I administer the internship program for the Shark Population Assessment Group at the Panama City Lab. The internship is geared toward helping upper-level undergraduates and recent graduates develop the skills they need to pursue research careers in marine biology, fisheries science, population biology, ecology, or other applied sciences. My best days are spent on a boat in the field with young people, helping them realize their dreams.

I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to remote and beautiful places and conduct field research on elasmobranchs; however, my job keeps me away from home a lot. Even the coolest field biology job that allows for travel to beautiful places can wear a person out.


7. Any advice to those wanting to study sharks (elasmobranchs)?

Elasmobranchs are awesome. Everyone knows that. Wanting to study elasmobranchs because they are awesome is not going to help you land a job. First, you need to develop a broad base of knowledge. Read everything you can get your hands on, including science-based social media. Find a job at an aquarium shop or volunteer with a science based non-profit organization. Look for an undergraduate program that offers a broad range of science classes – ecology, chemistry, physics, physiology, anatomy, statistics, population dynamics, marine policy, public speaking, and scientific writing. Find a professor with a lab on campus where you can volunteer (or, better yet, get paid!). Second, take time between obtaining an undergraduate degree and starting a graduate degree program. Spend that time off reading, volunteering or interning, or take an entry-level job as a fishery observer or biological technician. Graduate school is long and hard, and you will do better if you find out what you like and do not like before starting. Last but most importantly, DO NOT EVER limit yourself to sharks. You will be better served if you can find a question that needs an answer (e.g., anthropogenic effects like noise or mercury levels) and examine whether or not an elasmobranch can be used as the model.


8. What mystery about sharks would you like to solve?

One of the mysteries that elude those of us who research smalltooth sawfish is: Where do the larger juvenile animals (sized 78-118 inches, ages 1.5+) go between the time they leave the inshore coastal areas as smaller juveniles (sizes 26-59 inches, ages 0-1) and the time they aggregate to mate as adults (157 inches, ages 10+)? We feel we may be able to better answer this question through long-term acoustic monitoring (implanting 15-year pinger tags into the body cavity of animals) and satellite monitoring (attaching satellite tags to the dorsal fin of animals that record location and depth in real-time). Tags such as these are expensive; however, the tricky part comes in finding the animals in this size category to begin with!


Myth: Sharks are man-eaters.

Fact: Humans are not food for sharks, and an interaction with a shark is most often a case of mistaken identity. Elasmobranchs mostly eat fish or invertebrates, such as shrimp or crabs. There is also a diversity of feeding behaviors: large filter feeders, like the whale shark, strain plankton through modified gills, while bottom-dwelling suction feeders, like nurse shark, appear to “inhale” food into their mouths.

If you are worried about encountering a shark, there are several precautions you can take when swimming in the ocean: 1) avoid swimming at dawn and dusk (sharks are crepuscular, meaning they are more active during these times), 2) avoid swimming in cloudy or murky water (a lack of visibility could lead to a case of mistaken identity), 3) stay close to shore and avoid swimming in areas with high food sources such as near piers, fishermen, or diving birds, 4) never swim alone (remember the buddy system!), and 5) remove shiny jewelry before entering the water (underwater, jewelry can flash like fish scales and lead to a case of mistaken identity). If you are still worried about encountering a shark, then stay out of the water. Sharks cannot live on dry land.

Myth: All sharks are big with lots of sharp teeth.

Fact: Sharks, skates, and rays form a group of about 900-1150 species of ocean-dwelling and freshwater-dwelling fish called elasmobranchs. They come in many sizes – from the whale shark (46 feet long) and manta ray (23 feet wide) to the dwarf lanternshark (8 inches long) and lesser electric ray (18 inches long, 8 inches wide) – and shapes – from the scalloped hammerhead shark (given its name because of its hammer-shaped head) to the smalltooth sawfish (given its name because of its toothed saw-like snout).


Please include any links to publications you would like to share:

NOAA Communications Office YouTube video “Protecting the Smalltooth Sawfish” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EglktTg_Xa4

Changing Seas “Episode 604: Saving Sawfish” at http://changingseas.tv/episode604.html

Sawfish Conservation Society blog post from February 10, 2015 “NOAA Fisheries Research Team Uses Instagram to Find and Tag an Endangered Smalltooth Sawfish in Florida Everglades” at http://sawfishconservationsociety.blogspot.com/2015/02/noaa-fisheries-research-team-uses.html

Bethea, D.M., M.J. Ajemian, J.K. Carlson, E.R. Hoffmayer, J.L. Imhoff, R.D. Grubbs, C. Peterson, G.H. Burgess (2014) Distribution and community structure of coastal sharks in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Biology of Fishes. 98 (5): 1233-1254. Available for download at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10641-014-0355-3


When you are not studying sharks what do you like to do?

I am a Star Level 3 SPINNING® instructor and have been teaching indoor cycling for 8 years. I practice yoga at least three times per week, and I am an avid photographer and reader. My husband and I enjoy ballroom dance, craft beers, and watching sports.



- Me, John Carlson, and our technician, Grace Casselberry, tagging a juvenile smalltooth sawfish in Everglades National Park.

 -The ventral (underside) of a baby smalltooth sawfish captured in Everglades National Park, showing the red, newly healed umbilical scar (the place where the baby was attached to the mother in the uterus via the umbilical cord)

- Me and our NOAA Hollings Scholar, Kat Mowle, performing minor surgery to insert a pinger tag into the body cavity of a juvenile Atlantic sharpnose shark.