Matt Ajemian

The furthest back I can remember is being on the New Jersey shore, probably when I was a toddler. I recall the great cooling sensation of the Atlantic in summer, the vastness of the ocean and the power of the undertow as I lay in the swash zone. I am a native of Long Island, New York. Summers there, as well as in New Jersey, were my first introduction to the marine environment.

Having taken up fishing early on, I was exposed to an incredible diversity of fishes: striped ones, puffy ones, flat ones made mainly of cartilage, ones with crawly fins and, of course, the really toothy ones. I was fortunate to have supportive parents who were gracious enough to walk me through natural history museums and aquariums wherever our travels took us. These visits in turn led me on fact-finding quests in identification guides and stories of the sea, where I absorbed as much as possible about the oceans.

I spent several summers fishing the north side of Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island, Long Island’s largest barrier island. There I had the opportunity to witness some wonderful fishy happenings, including a stream of tropical migrants usurping the late-summer shallows and fantastic blitzes of offshore sportfish cruising past the jetties, out of reach of hungry surf fishermen.

Occasionally I would also come across whole fish carcasses wedged between rocks. Generally, these were little skates, thorny pan-sized pancakes even your mother couldn’t love, and sea robins, large-winged critters with spiny heads and feelers that would ‘creep out’ even the boldest of New York’s tough guys. Fishermen would often cast them onto land in an ill-fated attempt to rid the sea of the menacing creatures that stood in the way of a good meal or a shiny trophy fish.

I’ve always felt the need to share compassion for our sea’s wondrous animals, charismatic or not. Education and hands-on exposure to marine life can transform even the most stubborn of individuals into conservationists.

My introductory ‘soak’ in marine life led to an undergraduate degree in biology and Hispanic studies from Boston College and a summer internship with the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. This is where I was first exposed to shark and ray biology and conservation.

The following fall semester I started an MSc in biology at Hofstra University, only 20 minutes from my home town on Long Island. I was lucky enough to interact with an enthusiastic elasmobranch biologist, who introduced me to many researchers at that year’s American Elasmobranch Society meeting. Learning about the different types of research on these animals, and more importantly the large knowledge gaps, inspired me to undertake a PhD in marine sciences in South Alabama, where I focused on our awesome yet poorly misunderstood friends, the myliobatid rays.