Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Headed for disaster... without knowing it

Out of sight out of mind, as the saying goes. This is why so many people are surprised when I tell them that many shark species are almost extinct. And nearly all are headed for disaster.

But, you can’t stop something so terrible from happening if you don’t know about it. Or know why you should care.

Over 100,000,000 sharks were killed last year – primarily for their fins. Indeed, their populations are down to critical levels and they are still being fished out of the ocean at a completely unsustainable rate. In fact, recent studies indicate regional populations of sharks are down by 95 – 99%. That is considered functional extinction.

Many don’t know about this issue, because it happens so far away from us. Out in the oceans, far from shore, far from our eyes and far from governmental protection. We assume sharks are protected in marine reserves or that it is some other country’s problem. Many of us may even live in countries in which certain types of shark fishing is illegal – though most likely it is still occurring right under our noses.

And, it happens for reasons that many of us are not familiar with: it happens for the incredibly valuable shark fin. The key ingredient in a tasteless, social climbing soup. It is known as Fish Wing Soup in Asia and is so highly sought especially given its cultural association with health, prosperity and good fortune, it can sell for upwards of $100 a bowl. And while the supply is plummeting, the demand for shark fin soup is at an all time high.

Yes, the incredibly lucrative market for shark fins is driving the slaughter. And this industry full of greed and corruption is often likened to the illegal drug trade as it is rife with murder, mafia, and millions of dollars. Fisherman desperate to feed their families are being driven to extremes, and it is only a handful of individuals who are benefiting – at a incredible cost to all of us.

We have seen it before. All the factors are there for a global species extinction.

And once they know the fate facing sharks, many people throw up their hands and wonder why they should care, already convinced the only good shark is a dead shark after watching movies like Jaws and shows on Shark Week. Hasn't the media taught us that sharks are blood-thirsty, indiscriminant monsters with an insatiable hunger for human flesh? Should we really care if they disappear? Wouldn’t the world just be a better place?

Then comes the next surprise: contrary to all of the rubbish we have been taught, we are not on the sharks’ menus. In fact, of 6.5 billion people that live on this planet, only one died last year from a shark bite. One. Compare that to the amount of people who die from lightening strikes, car crashes, hunger, even falling coconuts and you realize there are many things to be worried about – but sharks are not one of them. Of the over 500 species of sharks, only a handful have ever even had encounters with humans. The truth? Sharks are magnificent creatures that are more scared of us than we could ever be of them.

If only we could let our fears go and realize sharks are misunderstood creatures that desperately need our help.

Maybe if we realized how brutal it is to fin a shark we might also care a bit more. Tragically, sharks are dragged while alive onto fishing boats where a knife with a hot blade is used to slice off all of the shark’s fins. Then, the shark is thrown back into the ocean still alive to bleed to death – or drown.

Maybe if we knew that while we collectively enjoy our shark steaks, shark fin soup, or shark cartlidge, that instead of being healthy we are actually poisoning ourselves, we might stop endlessly creating demand. Because sharks have levels of methyl-mercury in their flesh that is so high, a single shark steak can cause mercury poisoning, leading to sterility, nervous system issues and birth defects for those that consume it.

Or maybe if we realized that sharks keep our largest and most important ecosystem healthy – an ecosystem that provides us with much of the air we breath and food we eat – we might realize our existence, in part, is dependent on theirs. Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain, keeping our seas healthy and balanced for 450 million years. Those oceans absorb most of the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, converting it into 70% of the oxygen we breathe. The oceans also supply us with a large percentage of the food we eat – including serving as feed for many farmed animals. Yes, all that life is kept healthy by sharks, who, as apex predators, regulate the oceans. Destroying shark populations is destroying our oceans - our very life support systems – and thus, ourselves.

We don't hear how the elimination of sharks might impact our best natural defense against global warming. Or how our favorite foods might disappear as a side effect of the extinction of sharks. Or that we could lose more oxygen than is produced by all the trees and jungles in the world combined if we lose our sharks.

So whether you are like us and you absolutely love sharks and cannot imagine an ocean without them, or you simply realize the loss of the sharks from this planet has huge, far-reaching implications that cannot be ignored, the time to act is now. We must work together, fight this war and save our sharks.

(Photos courtesy of Jeff Rotman.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Angel Saving Sharks

I just finished filming my latest segment for the Underwater Channel with my new favorite filmmaker who I dragged to South Africa all the way from Malaysia after working with him in Sodwana, Paul Wildman and the amazing shark whisperer (and filmmaker) Morne Hardenburg. This time, I found myself in False Bay, South Africa, the largest bay in this country – a place notorious for its Great White Sharks.

(Paul at sea filming.)

While great white sharks are the sharks our collective nightmares are made of, the truth about these sharks is quite startling. While they are considered the most dangerous sharks to humans, in reality they desperately need protection from us – instead of the other way around. White Sharks around the world are severely endangered and are at risk of extinction.

But they are thriving here in Capetown, in many parts thanks to a very special researcher who is helping the world to better understand white sharks – and hopefully, through increased understanding, determine better ways to conserve them.

So, I spent a few days heading out with Alison Kock, my fellow Shark Angel and great white researcher on her boat to learn more about her research and the white sharks she has been studying for years. I was hoping to get up close and personal, tag some animals, and maybe, just maybe if I was lucky, see a white shark hunting for seals. The time of the year is right, so I kept my fingers crossed.

I was so excited to do this piece for two reasons: first, I love white sharks, and second, I was quite excited to see Alison in action. A skipper, a scientist, a shark lover and an angel. She truly is my hero.

We left the harbor with much anticipation, hoping to see not only a shark tagged, but also the infamous breaching seal island is famous for.

The sharks breach around Seal Island primarily in July and August. This is when they rocket out of the water to catch the unsuspecting seals, who leave the safety of the island to fish. Typically breaches happen in the morning, and it is rare to catch a glimpse of one.

You can see the seals darting back and forth when they travel to the island, constantly scanning the water below for sharks. They stay in groups to increase their protection.

When we arrived, we saw some seals very close to the boat, so Alison told us to watch the water. That is when two seals rocketed out with a white shark following closely behind. It was such an amazing site to see a four meter shark fly out of the water and somersault down on top of two seals. I think I stopped breathing. The shark missed, but we were able to witness the cat and mouse chase with the injured seals for quite some time. Later we saw the injured seal on the shore.

(Catching the end of the breach.)

Alison has spent over 2000 hours at sea studying the creature she is desperate to protect. She has tagged over 75 animals at Seal Island and has radio transmitters throughout False Bay to track their movements. She has ID-ed over 500 unique animals by their dorsal fins, and has gotten to know some sharks quite well over the years. Undoubtedly, what she has learned has saved countless sharks.

While South Africa leads the world protecting its white sharks and was the first country to do so, many are still killed each year by fisherman as unintentional bycatch, by shark nets installed on other parts of the coasts whose sole purpose is to kill the sharks that come too close to the beaches, and by poachers greed as white shark jaws and fins are so valuable. And even more are injured every year by fisherman, boaters, spear fishermen, and even some cage diving operators.

The population of sharks around the world is plummeting, with some species nearly extinct. Over 100 million sharks were killed last year, primarily for their fins. And unfortunately, white shark fins are some of the most sought after.

But Alison’s work helps people realize the importance of sharks to the ecosystem, protects the sharks from their biggest predator – man, and also debunks so many common myths that inevitably lead to the death of sharks.

(Alison ready for action.)

After the breaching, we got into position to begin attracting sharks to the boat.

The tagging process starts first with attracting the sharks by chumming the water with mashed sardines and anchovy oil – which creates a scent trail similar to the natural chum slicks created by Seal island. A floating piece of foam is also placed in the water, as the sharks, who are naturally curious, are attracted to the float. It wasn’t long before the sharks started coming in.

Then, the bait is thrown into the water – in this case a tuna head. Throwing the bait is a tough job, as the goal is to get the sharks interest, without allowing them to eat the bait. Often the sharks were not even attracted to it.

I found the behavior of the sharks unique and surprising. Not only did they respond in a cool, collected and unthreatening way that is very different to what you would expect from movies like Jaws, but they each had their own personality. In fact, we saw a shark that Alison instantly recognized as one that she had known for over five years, merely by the way it approached the boat.

Not only does Alison spends many days every year at sea, tagging and tracking sharks, she also takes genetic samples. She sends the samples to a lab in Europe so they can analyze the DNA and determine the heritage of white sharks throughout the world.

Finally, we had a shark take great interest in the bait. So, when a shark does show interest, the next step is to ID the shark by taking photos of its dorsal fin. Alison then determines if this is a shark she wishes to tag. If she decides to tag the shark, it is a long process of working the shark into an exact position that allows Alison to tag the shark right below its dorsal fin, ensuring the shark is not injured.

(Art-y dorsal ID picture - I added a new flair to the job.)

On our best day out, we caught the attention of a 3.5 meter male shark who we later called “Motor Mouth” since he was so interested in chomping… After bringing him past the boat several times, Alison was able to tag him which was such an incredible experience. To have a shark so close yet show no signs of aggression was amazing.

(Motor Mouth after the tagging.)

After tagging Motor Mouth, he slowly swam away – hardly bothered – with a new piece of jewelry. But this jewelry contained a radio transmitter that can stay active for up to two years, so Alison can track him for years to come.

Seeing the sharks interact with us, the seals and each other at Seal Island was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime, and one I will not easily forget. Not only did I learn so much about white sharks in a single day, I gained a new appreciation for the important work Alison is doing to ensure white sharks will continue to thrive not just in Seal Island, but around the world.

White shark research is significantly under-funded though we are learning new things about them every day. The work Alison is doing is critical to their conservation and the species survival.

(Alison in action taking a genetic sample.)

In my experience many scientists do not get heavily involved in conservation. Alison is a new breed of scientist who has bridged the gap – realizing she needs to protect what she is studying.

What we don’t understand, we fear. We know so little about these amazing creatures. In fact, birthing and mating has never even been witnessed before. Our ignorance, I think, leads to our irrational fear of white sharks. I truly believe the more we can learn about these sharks, the more we can, and will want to, protect them.

View more pictures

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Science of Sharks

I spent the last two days dissecting sharks. Yes, that is right... I said dissecting. I performed eight personally and witnessed many, many more, including a great white dissection. What is a conservationist doing spending time with a bunch of dead sharks? Yes, I asked myself the same question.

But now I realize the important role this type of science plays in the conservation of sharks. How do we know what areas specifically we need to protect? What their role in the ecosystem is? What sustainable catch limits are based upon their growth and reproduction rates?

The point of the research is truly to understand animals that few people know anything about and study these animals that are not currently protected in the hopes of creating appropriate legislation in the future.

Our examinations included things like determining the size of the shark when it reaches sexual maturity (to define size restrictions in catch), identifying mercury levels in skin to identify environmental contaminants and set restraints for sharks caught primarily for fillet consumption, examining stomach contents to determine where the sharks dwell and areas that should be protected, looking at reproduction rates and health of the population to set catch limits, identifying isotropic levels to determine ecosystem dependencies, etc... All in the name of conservation.

None of the sharks were killed for this - all were killed as bycatch or by fisherman (including the white shark.)

I know it may seem hard to believe, but I learned more than I thought was possible. For the first time, I could see the gel in the Ampullae of Lorenzini and examine the shark’s lateral line. I understood reproduction, biological composition and about 100 other things I have read but never truly grasped. And while it broke my heart, at the same time, I realized the importance of science and the discovery of critical scientific data required for good conservation regulations. Things that sometimes require the study of dead animals...

And, as odd as this may sound as another benefit, I stink like a dead shark – a benefit as now I will be able to distinctively identify it in any fisherman wharf, processing plant or market and know if sharks have been caught illegally (a smell that you can NEVER forget).

I never thought I would say this, but I am a more informed, educated and powerful conservationist because I spent two days with dead sharks. Thanks to Charlene Da Silva with Marine Coastal Management here in South Africa and Alison Kock of Save Our Seas (and my fellow Shark Angel.) These two are some seriously amazing women, scientists and shark conservationists.

A bit about the sharks we dissected:

Mustelus mustelus
(smoothhound shark) - IUCN status - not evaluated. important fisheries species in European, Mediterreanean, and west African waters. Used fresh, frozen, and smoked for food., liver for oil, and for fishmeal.

Mustelus palumbes (whitespot smoothhound shark) - IUCN status - not evaluated - insufficient data. Taken by sports anglers and as bycatch, but usually discarded.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Surfers meet a Shark Angel... And Sharks!

(Video of the experience at the bottom of the blog.)

I think I have finally found something I like better than diving with sharks. Sharing that experience with others – especially those who are, shall we say, not yet enlightened, deeply rooted in that fear and misconception culture that surrounds sharks. And Saturday, I had the amazing opportunity to do just that. With a group of folks that are infamous shark haters... Surfers.

(Not only did these influential surfers take on their fears, they got the story in the Sunday edition of The Times today - Southern Africa's major newspaper read by 5 million people... and in the Cape Argus - the Sunday edition of the major Capetown paper:

At the Shark Angels screening at the Durban IFC/Wavescapes film festival, I met some very charismatic and famous US and South African Surfers including Ross Frylink, Steve Pike and Wes Brown. After a long conversation which included some heavy encouragement (especially in Wes’ case who openly admitted he was terrified of surfing here in South Africa due to all the frequent shark attacks), these surfers, notorious for despising sharks actually agreed to join me on a shark dive.

Mark and Gail Addison stepped up and funded our little adventure (so incredibly generous of them - as always anything to save the sharks.) So, we met early Saturday morning, freediving equipment in tow, to get these guys into the water with what was one of their biggest enemies – the monsters of their nightmares. A boat full of surfers (11 in total all big, strong stock including my incredible new friend Olivia Jones) and little old me – a tiny Shark Angel.

The mood to the dive site was somber and quiet – and many questions were asked which entailed things like “What do I do if the shark tries to bite me?” and “What if my fin touches the chum?” and the prodding jokes to one another about wills and Jaws.

When we finally found sharks, of course, I couldn’t get into the water fast enough. They, on the other hand, took an inordinate amount of time to put on their fins and mask.

Finally, all six guys joined me and my friends, 15 beautiful black tips, in the water. The black tips were frisky, and the vis was gorgeous – a perfect day for freediving. Suddenly I found myself tightly surrounded by six nervous guys who were practically climbing on me to get out of the water. I couldn’t move. Funny they thought this little shark angel could offer them any protection… and from what?

Then, I watched something I still cannot describe and still puts a huge smile on my face and warms my heart every time I think of it. Within 30 seconds, the fear dissolved into amazement and the misperceptions melted away as every single guy bolted down to 15 feet to get closer to the sharks they so desperately wanted to touch… I couldn’t figure out where everyone went, until I looked down and saw massive chaos as they flitted from shark to shark trying to get as close as possible.

In Wes’ case, I was even prouder - and more touched. Here was a guy who I couldn’t convince to give sharks a chance. Now, he was lovingly stroking them, and we literally had to pull him – and actually all of them - out of the water.

The enthusiasm and just the raw emotion of the event was contagious. I beamed with pride as the newly inducted Shark Savers were passionately describing their experiences and how much they regretted ever spending time worrying about a shark attack. They couldn’t stop telling everyone they saw about their incredible day – and I knew that we had, together, in some small way, made a little bigger dent in the problem.

Those of us who dive with sharks frequently still revel in the magical experience, but I think we forget what it is like the first time you realize here is something you have been taught to fear all your life, and instead of wanting to eat you, it is just the perfect, awe-inspiring creature. That moment that perception shifts is one of the most precious things a shark conservationist can witness.

I am so excited to continue working with the surfing community – with Ross, Steve, OJ and Wes – and gain even more surfers' collective support for sharks. Almost as excited as I am to get into the water with them as they transform me from a Shark Angel into a Surf Angel. Yes, after sharing sharks with them, turn around is fair play, and they want to share another perspective on the ocean with me. And I cannot wait.

Read about the adventure from the surfers' point of view on the Wavescapes site: