How One Gables Native Helped Fund Shark Research at UM – And How You Can, Too
By J.P. Faber
The first encounter between Ruta Maya coffee company CEO Tim Sheehan and UM shark researcher Neil Hammerschlag actually took place at the Starbucks on Miracle Mile.
Sheehan was wearing a special “U Miami Shark Research” T-shirt. Hammerschlag, director of the Shark Research & Conservation Program at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, walked up and thanked Sheehan for his support. Sheehan had no idea what Hammerschlag was talking about; the T-shirt had been a gift, not a purchase to help fund shark studies.
That meeting blossomed into a relationship between Sheehan and Hammerschlag, and it was a perfect fit. Sheehan is a Coral Gables native who left years ago to start a socially responsible organic coffee company in Texas. That company – Ruta Maya – roasted and marketed coffee purchased from small farmers along on The Maya Route, a historic trek that starts in Mexico and goes through Guatemala and Honduras. Ruta Maya, via a distribution deal with Costco, did very well, and Sheehan wanted to give back (besides helping the farmers). The idea of supporting shark research and preservation was so appealing that Sheehan’s company became a regular donor to the program, also carrying its logo and website on each coffee bag. And for Sheehan it was a homecoming; having missed Coral Gables since he departed, the company president moved back three years ago, restoring a 1926 cottage home.
“We work with organic farmers in Chiapas [Mexico],” says Sheehan. “When we came across the shark program, we wanted to see how we could help. We actually went out with him [Hammerschlag] on a boat to tag some sharks.”
Hammerschlag himself has become a world renown shark researcher, studying shark populations in an effort to prevent their extinction. Some 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year, and in some places they have virtually disappeared.
“It’s much harder to get government grants these days, so we need the help of corporate America,” says Hammerschlag. “Ones like Ruta Maya, that feel a corporate responsibility, are absolutely critical to what we are trying to do. We have a lot of goals, from research to educational outreach. We want to understand these threatened species and what the impact [of their decimation] will be. We also bring middle and high school kids out, to inspire them about STEM and marine biology, and to instill in them a conservation ethic.”
Even if you are not a corporate donor, you can still help support the program. For $3,000 you can adopt a shark, which is then tagged and tracked by satellite; as the proud sponsor, you get weekly location updates. And if that price tag is too steep, you can name a shark for $25. The shark is ID tagged and you get a little card with details about your beast – size, sex, species, tag number. Go to www.sharktagging.com for details. And if you want to see Hammerschlag and his team in action, two segments of Shark Week (Discovery Channel, July 28 to Aug. 4) focus on their work in coastal South Africa and the Bahamas.