After more than a decade on marine vessels from Japan to Norway, deep-sea shark expert Dr. Chip Cotton plans on spending the foreseeable future back in the classroom. Though not at SUNY Cobleskill, the classroom is where he first picked up much of his core knowledge.
It is easy to regard Dr. Cotton as a “shark guy” even though he says he prefers “well-rounded naturalist.” When he began his professional research, what is known today about deep-sea sharks would have been considered unfathomable. Researchers knew sharks dwelled in the deep-ocean, but little was known about individual species, and their taxonomy. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an increase in funding allowed investigative research expeditions aimed at assessing the damage to deep-sea sharks; Dr. Cotton’s expertise became evident.
“We had all the funding you could imagine,” says Dr. Cotton. “It was a purely research-focused time.”
Since the spill, Dr. Cotton has acquired more than 1,000 individual samples of shark skins, spines, vertebrae, and eyes to support various research. Based in Florida before New York, Dr. Cotton recalls lugging a chest-freezer filled with shark samples with him to SUNY Cobleskill.
“Students here get the freshwater [education] in spades,” says Dr. Cotton. “I come from a marine background, so I am adding a bit of marine influence to the curriculum.” He is intent on providing students with a perspective touching on modern policy, and flavored by stories of the Cod Wars of Iceland, and the ongoing US/Canada “Lobster War.” The historical context coincides with the current state of deep-sea shark research.
“We are 50-to-100 years behind other fish species with researching deep-sea sharks, taking into account policy and management. We only recently have gathered the data, so we are just beginning to share them with [those in] policy and management. We are only beginning to learn the level to which we need to restore deep sea shark ecology in some areas; we finally have what we need to start mapping this arc of change.”
While his environment has moved from the boat to the lecture hall, he is retaining his focus on conservation. Both in continuing his research, and sharing wisdom with a new generation, Dr. Cotton is designing an influence certifiably his own.
Feature photo: Dr. Chip Cotton arrived at SUNY Cobleskill with hundreds of shark samples, now housed on campus.