Preston man swaps classroom for captive shark breeding programme

Passion: Ben O'Neill has been seconded to a team of shark experts

Passion: Ben O'Neill has been seconded to a team of shark experts

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A shark-mad student is swapping the classroom to help boost numbers of an under threat species.

Ben O’Neill from Preston has been seconded to a team of shark experts working on a pioneering captive breeding programme.

The 22-year-old of Balfour Road, Fulwood, is helping marine experts in Dorset refine the protocols for breeding blacktip reef sharks – a species under pressure from the shark-finning trade.

Blacktip reef sharks, which can grow to six feet in length, are classed as ‘near threatened’ in the wild.

Former Our Ladies RC High and Cardinal Newman pupil Ben is more than two years into a four-year Zoology degree at the University of Manchester, and his shark breeding work will contribute to his BSc.

A lifelong wildlife enthusiast, Ben developed a passion for marine life when snorkelling off Turkey and Africa, and has recently become a qualified scuba diver.

He said: “The shark assignment is right up my street and it came about through sheer chance.”

Sharks are a speciality of university lecturer John Fitzpatrick, who was already working with the European network of Sea Life Centres.

The network has one of the world’s biggest captive collections of the species, and has already had successful births at centres in Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Now the network’s Marine Animal Welfare Department in Weymouth is plotting a concerted breeding effort to boost stocks and perfect techniques for a potential reintroduction programme in the future.

Ben, who will work on the project until July, added: “John approached Sea Life on my behalf and they quickly agreed to host me for my year’s work-experience, my studies so far being perfectly suited to helping with the breeding project.”

Before he knuckled down to some serious academic investigation, Ben was lucky enough to get ‘hands-on’ with 11 blacktips, helping tag them and then transport them from the Sea Life centre in Great Yarmouth to its sister attraction in Birmingham. “Great Yarmouth’s ocean display was being cleared for redevelopment and when the work is completed it has been chosen to host what could be the most critical and exciting phase of the blacktip breeding programme.

“Captive born juveniles from Germany and Holland will be held there and allowed to mature together in the hope that they will eventually produce offspring of their own.

“The measure of success with any captive breeding programme is second generation captive births,” he added.

Ben is now hard at work analysing data from the Sea Lifes which have already bred blacktips and from other aquariums across the world that have enjoyed similar happy events.

“My task is to try and identify the factors most conducive to achieving good sized litters of healthy pups,

“I’ll be writing my findings up in a paper which could be helpful not only to Sea Life, but to shark researchers generally.”