Into The Industry: EDGE of Existence

Shawn Rykaczewski

Fran Cabada is a marine biologist with the Zoological Society of London working on their EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) of Existence programme. We sat down for an interview with her to unravel her transition from an undergraduate law student to a doctorate marine biology student, working on conservation efforts to protect vulnerable species of sharks and rays.

Hey Fran! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a Marine Biologist from ZSL’s (Zoological Society of London) EDGE of Existence Conservation Programme. EDGE stands for Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered species and is a method used to prioritise conservation efforts of various groups of animals around the world.

I am originally from Venezuela and have been working in marine conservation for the past 10 years. I am an avid diver, though I do not know if I could list it as a hobby anymore, as I struggle to carry out recreational dives without my brain just “annotating data.” Luckily, I have many other interests which I enjoy, but still in the marine realm such as windsurfing.

Fran Cabada. Photos: Francoise Cabada & Zoological Society of London

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

During my first year as an undergraduate at law school, I was introduced to scuba diving. I was visiting my sister, who recently married and was living on Margarita Island in the Southern Caribbean at the time. My brother-in-law is a Master Instructor and he took me diving off a small archipelago called Los Frailes. It’s not the typical calm, clear, warm-water Caribbean diving site, but what I saw under the water just left me awed. I wanted to understand how the amazing world under the ocean functioned.

I literally came out of the water and asked my brother-in-law if he would hire me. I enrolled myself in the only university in the country that had an undergraduate marine biology programme. When I returned home, I dropped the news to my parents, packed my bags and started the most amazing journey of my life, filled with ups and many downs, but completely worth it.

Tell us a bit about your work at EDGE of Existence

My work within the EDGE of Existence team at ZSL encompasses a myriad of aspects related to the marine EDGE species, including communications, research and mentoring. Of these, most of my time is dedicated to supporting small conservation projects implemented by our EDGE Fellows around the world. Working within the EDGE of Existence team allows us to function as a hub – facilitating collaborative work among organisations, researchers and EDGE Fellows – which in my opinion, is the only way to achieve success in conservation. The collaboration is the part I enjoy the most; I love working with people from many different countries. Also, it gives me the opportunity to learn about different conservation projects being implemented around the world and the factors affecting the outcomes. I especially love seeing the projects EDGE Fellows are working on, as I was one myself back in 2013.

Fran Cabada in her element, teaching EDGE Fellows methods of conservation monitoring. Photo: Zoological Society of London

Fran Cabada in her element, teaching EDGE Fellows methods of conservation monitoring. Photo: Zoological Society of London

What does a typical day as a marine biologist look like for you?

Well, despite what most people think, I don’t spend every day at the beach. As I’ve advanced through my career, I found my time in the field slowly being replaced by time in front of the computer. Although I still carry out fieldwork – such as diving, moving equipment, and getting on and off boats – my typical day-to-day tasks can involve:

  • Managing important administrative tasks

  • Replying to long lists of emails

  • Reviewing reports

  • Drafting manuscripts

  • Writing blog posts and grant proposals

  • Reading the daily paper to keep updated

My time spent in the field, however, is priceless. This job allows me to see and learn about a lot of different marine systems which harbour amazing EDGE species. It is like living inside of a marine ecology book, with the added value of learning from locals about the true value of these marine resources.

Fran with the Borneo EDGE team on a recent field visit. Photo: Zoological Society London

Fran with the Borneo EDGE team on a recent field visit. Photo: Zoological Society London

Your PhD research is more focused on corals. What has the transition to sharks and rays been like for you?

I’ve really enjoyed the transition from working on corals to sharks and rays. I had previously worked in fisheries and resource management and studied fish population dynamics and fisheries biology. So, I was well versed in Chondrichthyans (fishes whose skeletons are made of catilage rather than bone) already.

While most of my past research has been on corals, my interest has always existed beyond them. Between my experience in resource management and environmental impact assessments, and my knowledge of animals vulnerable to commercial exploitation, I was able to make this transition easily.

Whale shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

Whale shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

How does EDGE determine which species make their conservation list?

EDGE lists are rankings of species which deserve the most conservation attention or action. Species are ranked via their EDGE scores, which are derived from their evolutionary distinctiveness (ED) and how threatened they are. Thus, it prioritises species that possess a long evolutionary history and for which conservation actions are urgently needed. The species having higher EDGE scores rank at the top.

ED values reflect how ‘isolated’ (few living relatives in the tree of life) and ‘ancient’ (how long ago that species separated from a common ancestor) a species is relative to all the other species in the group. To create an EDGE list for a group of animals, well-dated phylogenies need to be available in order to calculate their ‘ED’ score. Globally Endangered (GE) scores are then calculated for those species with an ED higher than the group’s median, who are also listed as “threatened” on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. These two scores feed into the calculation that produces the overall EDGE score of a species, which we are then able to rank. 

According to the “Top 50 EDGE Sharks and Rays,” the largetooth sawfish is not only “number 1 on the EDGE Shark list, but also has the highest-ranking score of any EDGE species!”. Photo: Simon Fraser University [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

According to the “Top 50 EDGE Sharks and Rays,” the largetooth sawfish is not only “number 1 on the EDGE Shark list, but also has the highest-ranking score of any EDGE species!”. Photo: Simon Fraser University [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

What do you believe are the biggest threats to sharks and rays today, and what can we do to lessen them?

Arguably, the two most pressing threats to sharks and rays are 1) unregulated and unreported illegal fisheries and 2) the degradation of marine habitats. Better management of fisheries and improvements to the enforcement of regulations is needed, especially for industrial scale fisheries and activities taking place in international waters. At the same time, poverty and livelihood alternatives need to be addressed in many countries in order to reduce the negative impacts that artisanal and small-scale fisheries have on shark and ray populations.

Incorporating sustainability into the development of coastal areas is paramount. We all need to help navigate decision-makers towards much needed solutions, such as improving general knowledge of the health of shark and ray populations and the actions that can be taken to bolster them. Personal actions individuals can take include:

  • Contacting local government representatives and asking them to encourage conservation efforts in their own country as well as others.

  • Only buying sustainably sourced seafood and spreading the word of its importance. In fishers’ markets, you can start a friendly conversation with buyers and sellers alike about your preference for sustainably sourced foods.

The green sawfish is ranked 2nd on EDGE’s sharks and rays list. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

The green sawfish is ranked 2nd on EDGE’s sharks and rays list. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

What do you believe the general public could do to help conservation efforts?

The general public can achieve a positive impact on the marine environment by doing small, simple tasks such as:

  • Reducing consumption of single-use plastics

  • Considering the impacts of the substances you typically pour down the sink

  • Supporting sustainably sourced products and services. This includes things like hotels you book when going on holiday near the coast. For example, look for hotels with eco-tourism certifications or resorts with conservation programs in place.

  • Leaving public comments on why you did or did not choose a service or product, as this helps incentivise businesses to get involved in trusted, ethical certification systems.

Even if you just focused on raising awareness of these tasks, you can help considerably. Do your research on issues you believe in and become part of the solution.

The great hammerhead is one of the most threatened hammerhead species, due to the value of its large dorsal fin. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

The great hammerhead is one of the most threatened hammerhead species, due to the value of its large dorsal fin. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

Are there any marine biologists or conservationists that you look up to?

Within ZSL I’d have to say Heather Koldewey, who is Head of the Marine & Freshwater division of the Conservation and Policy team. She’s built an amazing team that is actively making a positive impact on many marine and freshwater species, ecosystems, protected areas and associated communities around the world. I would be very happy if I some day accomplished half of what she has achieved.

There are many marine biologists whose work I admire, mainly because of the approach they’ve taken to address interesting and important ecological questions. For example, researchers like Peter Mumby and Nick Graham have a real impact on conservation. I also admire the more naturalist approach of pioneer marine scientists like Joseph H. Connell. Additionally, there are many outstanding conservationists working on a local scale from whom I have learnt so much from. These lesser known on-the-sea conservationists, working in places where conservation action requires more effort and commitment because of wider socioeconomic issues, are my real heros. This is why I look up to our EDGE Fellows.

And finally, what advice would you give to people who want to pursue a career in conservation biology?

  1. Never lose sight of the motivation that drew you into conservation.

  2. Scientific rigour is also paramount in conservation. Ensure your conclusions, and the decisions recommended from them, are concise and accurate to the extent to which your data and design allow.

  3. People are as important as the biodiversity you want to protect. Always take people into account because if they are in some way part of the threat, they will for sure be part of the solution. Social science is incredibly valuable and it’s important to remember that.

A Caribbean electric ray, ranked 12th on EDGE’s shark and ray list. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]

A Caribbean electric ray, ranked 12th on EDGE’s shark and ray list. Photo: Shutterstock [courtesy of the Zoological Society of London]


If you’d like to learn more about Fran or ZSL’s EDGE of Existence Conservation Programme, click here. You can follow ZSL here @OfficialZSL/@zsledgeofexistence and follow Fran here @frankiejoe_81

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‘Into the Industry’ explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world.

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