Live From: The Macquarie University Shark Tanks

Shark Boi and Lava Pescetarians: Ethics in the Life Aquatic

Did you know we have sharks on campus? Yeah, don’t worry, you’re not the only one who just heard the Jaws theme in their head. It is that immediate heart pounding, hand sweating reaction that directs the current of much of our cultural understanding of sharks.

This fear has resulted in shark culling programs across the country, as well as the use of shark nets and drumlines, which are baited hooks used to lure and trap sharks. This has resulted in some troubled waters for our native marine life. According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, 577 great white sharks and 352 tiger sharks were caught in shark control nets in NSW between 1950 and 2008. Sharks are not the only animals getting caught up though, other marine animals that die in the nets are referred to as ‘by-catch’.

What by-catch really means is non-lethal marine life, such as turtles, whales, dolphins, stingrays, dugongs, and harmless species of sharks. Over the same time period 15,135 marine animals in the by-catch category were caught and killed in nets, including 377 critically endangered grey nurse sharks.

There has been a huge amount of debate about whether or not marine life such as fish and sharks feel pain. The pescetarian diet, which adds seafood to a vegetarian diet, is a popular alternative to vegetarianism that supposedly maintains ethical values. Scientific research has swayed in the direction that fish do not feel pain the way humans do.

However, Associate Professor at Macquarie, Culum Brown, who specialises in the behavioural ecology of fish and marine life, believes that just because they don’t feel pain the way humans do, does not mean they do not feel pain at all. “People tend to forget that the reason we feel pain is because we inherited all the gear from our fish ancestors. There is little doubt that bony fish feel pain in a manner similar to us.”

Culum has been interested in marine animals ever since he was a kid. “A few years back a post doc spent some time in my lab working of cognition in sharks and we have been working on them ever since.”

He works closely with our resident sharks here at Macquarie. His research is motivated by a need to understand their behaviour. “Sharks are reasonably cryptic and can move huge distances, and being marine it’s very hard to observe them for any decent length of time. Sharks are one of the most vulnerable of marine animal groups. They also have a bad rep in the press, even though they are responsible for fewer than one death per year.”

The cultural fear of sharks may be contributing to misconceptions about whether or not sharks feel pain. Culum says that while most of the appropriate experiments have yet to be carried out, pain receptors must exist within the physiology of sharks, since they date back to the annelids.

Even without a specific experiment to test pain reception, there are indicators that sharks have complex social structures, even best friends. “Sharks have complex social lives, far more so than we give them credit,” says Culum. “They preferentially hang out with specific individuals. We analyse this using social network analysis, which is a bit like keeping track of people’s Facebook accounts.”

This is done through acoustic tag technology, which allows researchers like Culum to figure out where the sharks go and what they do. Culum has tracked Port Jackson based sharks as they migrate all the way to Tasmania and back. They return to the same reef every year to breed, and develop complex social relationships with their peers.

These shark bois don’t sound all that different from doggos, well maybe with a few extra teeth. So why do so many people believe that it’s okay to cull so many different types of marine life? “People definitely treat fish as if they are in some way inferior to land animals. They are not,” says Culum.

We don’t know for sure if dogs, cats, chickens, or cattle feel pain the exact same way that humans do, but we are constantly campaigning for more humane and ethical treatment, as well as introducing legal penalties for mistreatment. If animals like fish and sharks are self-aware, in a way that is comparable to a chook, shouldn’t we treat them with just as much compassion? Culum is currently studying sense of self in wild mantas in Indonesia. His findings may well give a swell of support to our misunderstood shark bois and their ethical standing in society.

Article originally published in Grapeshot

Live From: The Focus On Ability Short Film Festival

The Focus On Ability Short Film Festival is an opportunity for a fresh narrative about disability. An initiative by Nova Employment, the Festival is raising awareness of the abilities of people with a disability.

I was fortunate enough to be present at the Film Festival’s 2016 awards night at The Concourse in Chatswood. By 6 o’clock the foyer was roaring with the excited voices of the filmmakers, as their friends and families watched them make their way along the red carpet. Up for grabs, over $140, 000 in cash and prizes, with the winning films screened across Australia, in Auckland and New York. Camera flashes lit up proud smiles, as a TV news crew flitted about the venue. It was an evening for celebration, taking pride in a job well done, and meeting people with a story to tell.

The Festival began in 2009 to combat bullying in Western Sydney schools by putting kids with a disability at the heart and center of the project. Eight years later, the Festival has exploded, with entrants from remote communities near Alice Springs and internationally from 18 countries including Uganda, Cambodia and America.

Focus On Ability ambassador and actor Paula Duncan says the Festival bridges differences through collaboration, technology, and by allowing a dialog to take place. “Everybody has their own story to tell,” she emphasizes.

Above all Ms. Duncan believes the Festival is about a sense of hope and bringing people together to focus on the abilities of people with a disability.

In Queensland, digital artist Scotty Hanson focuses on his abilities. Scotty was born with Muscular Dystrophy, a disease marked by a progressive weakening and wasting away of the muscles. When he was only seven, he could no longer walk. There is a lot he can’t do, but there is plenty he can. He loves to cook. He loves to play video games. He loves making art.

From a young age Scotty loved sculpting and working with clay. But since losing much of the movement in his hands, he focuses on creating digital images, 3D CGI video editing and animation. In 2006 he graduated TAFE with an Advanced Diploma of Screen. To realize his digital creations, Scotty uses his mouth to manipulate a small joystick and edit his images and animation sequences. “I love the unlimited possibilities it gives you to bring your imagination to life,” he says. It can take him up to six months to complete an image. “I’m a perfectionist, so it’s really easy for me to get lost in my creativity. It helps me focus my attention on something I can do, rather than things I can’t.”

It was Scotty’s love of digital art that led to his involvement with the Focus On Ability Short Film Festival in 2016. He met a friend, Ming Dao Ting, through his local church and they got talking about Scotty’s love of editing and animation, and Ting suggested the pair collaborate on a short film together. “I guess he saw my positive outlook on life and thought it would encourage others.”

Scotty co-wrote and starred in his own short documentary titled ‘Maybe Just A Little’, showing audiences that even though he has a disability, he is not so different from them. The film’s upbeat humor is a reflection of Scotty’s personality and instantly charming. In both art and life Scotty believes joy is an important thing, “It shows that even though I’m disabled I can still have fun and laugh.”

Initiatives like the Focus On Ability Short Film Festival allow people with a disability the opportunity to challenge ableist stereotypes that personify them as dependent and helpless. They can speak for themselves and rewrite the narrative surrounding disability by creating stories of joy, strength and pride grounded in the unique life experience of being disabled. People like Scotty can do a lot of things, just let them show you.

The Focus On Ability Short Film Festival is running again in 2017, where it will give a voice to hundreds of emerging filmmakers and stories that focus on ability. Entries close on the 30th of June, for more information visit the Focus On Ability website.

Live From: The Sydney Writers Festival

Women belong on the front line. This war cry is growing louder among academics, feminists and female soldiers who are challenging the boys club mentality of the military.

With militaries around the world opening more positions to women, studies are beginning to interrogate the reasons for maintaining male-only combat units.

“Some of the reasons include that women will get their period, and every 28 days they’ll be in bed, or while they’re on a mission they might attract bears or sharks,” Dr. Megan Mackenzie said. The jam-packed Curiosity Stage at the Sydney Writers Festival filled with laughter in response to one of the less rigorous arguments uncovered in her research.

Dr. Mackenzie is a leading expert on gender security, and women in combat. She is Senior Lecturer of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and a former post-doctoral fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. Her book, Beyond The Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight was a Sydney Writers Festival 2016 bestseller, with only three copies left as she took to the stage to answer the question:

‘Do Women Belong On The Front Line?’

Dr. Mackenzie explained to the that many cis and transgendered women choose to join the military, and their reasons for doing so are as varied and valid as a man’s. “They should be allowed to work in an institution that respects them and provides them with an equal workspace,” she said.

Dr. Mackenzie defined the two most common arguments against allowing women in front line roles, the ‘Physical’ and the ‘Cohesion’ arguments. The former is the general position that men and women’s bodies are different. The latter pertains to how men and women work together, and the idea that front line units require a special kind of trust and loyalty that men are better able to attain.

Referring to her research, Dr. Mackenzie contended that neither argument was irrefutable. Rather, it is gender bias that shapes what we believe about women in combat. According to her book, not only can women meet the male physical standards, they also perform better in different areas. Women were also shown to fare well in complex decision-making, a trait arguably more useful in modern warfare than brute strength. She claimed there was little evidence showing that women negatively impacted on cohesion, or the unit’s ability to do its job.

The issue, Dr. Mackenzie believes, is the Band of Brothers Myth. The Myth is not that a group of male soldiers can develop a close bond, but that a nation’s security rests upon such exclusive masculine camaraderie. This enticing but destructive myth romanticizes war, and narrows it to encompass only honor, sacrifice and brotherhood. In reality, she argues, the Band of Brothers Myth is just a story through which we historicize war.

She hypothesises that higher numbers of women in all areas of the military would have a positive effect on the outcomes of peacekeeping operations. She asked the audience to question the myths we construct about war and gender, “We have to look at reality. There are no Band of Brothers movies actually happening in Afghanistan or Iraq. War is messy, costly, dirty… It’s not all men high-fiving each other.”

The battle to balance out the boys club might continue for as long as war exists. The nuclear option might be to demythologise war. As any soldier will tell you, war is far more complex and difficult than any Hollywood film.

Dr. Mackenzie was one of many forward-thinking women whose lecture focused on gender equality at last years Sydney Writers Festival. The 2017 SWF will again host many intelligent women discussing issues of feminism, gender equality and world issues, such as the Advice From Nasty Women panel featuring guest speakers Brit Bennett, Durga Chew-Bose, Viola Di Grado, Anita Heiss, Chris Kraus and Nadja Spiegelman, and hosted by Sophie Black. Join these nasty women at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday 27th May at 8pm. For tickets and more information check out the Sydney Writers Festival website.

Updated: Saturday 3rd June, 2017