Originally, Matt Ajemian thought he wanted to study medicine like his dad, despite a love for the ocean. As an undergraduate, however, he continued to undertake internships related to marine biology. Now, he spends his time on the water catching grouper and tagging sharks as an assistant professor of research at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
As a fisheries ecologist, Matt studies how fish, like sharks, rays and groupers, interact with each other, their environment and how they respond to stress. He joined FAU’s Harbor Branch team in 2016 and currently has a variety of projects ranging from eagle ray ecology and bonefish reproduction to grouper communication. As a scientist, Matt’s goals are to further our knowledge of the ocean and provide sound science for managers, the scientific community and the public.
“We are connected with the marine environment, particularly in Florida where most of the coastal population is right against the shoreline,” Mat says. “We better know what we are doing to it, so its gems are still left for the future.”
Growing up on Long Island, New York, Matt started fishing at a young age, intrigued by the sea and its creatures. He was fortunate, he says, to have supportive parents who would take him into the city to visit the American Museum of Natural History once a year, as well as various aquariums during their travels. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology and Hispanic Studies from Boston College, he went on to earn a master’s in marine science at Hofstra University, just 20 minutes from his hometown. Eventually, he earned his PhD in marine science at the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab in 2011.
At FAU Harbor Branch, Matt has the chance to study the marine life in his own backyard, the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile “Estuary of National Significance” with an economic value estimated at $8 billion. In recent years, the IRL has made headlines due to large blooms of toxic algae from coastal development and changing environmental conditions, such as warming temperatures.
Matt’s goal is to understand how these toxins impact wildlife, including how it accumulates in their tissues. “We don’t really know how any of those toxins move through the food web,” Matt says. To answer that question, among others, Matt is examining the toxic load in bull sharks, eagle rays and sea turtles. By studying those three species in particular, they can cover the food web. Sharks eat fish, sea turtles eat seagrass and algae, and rays eat all the bottom-dwelling shelled critters like crabs and clams.
Overall, Matt’s work combines conservation, vulnerable species and fisheries. Bonefish, for example—the subject of one project—are listed as near threatened due to habitat loss, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. However, they are also part of a multibillion-dollar flats fishery.
“The more we know about fish and their behavior, the better we can manage and support their populations,” Matt adds. “Science leads to sustainability.”