Tuesday, December 23, 2008

CNN Blog - The world needed to see what I was witnessing

Expanded version of blog featured on cnn.com

I broke the surface having just completed the last day of diving on some of the most incredible reefs I had ever seen. Floating in the deep blue waters, I looked around and surveyed the dozens of forest covered limestone islands that surrounded me. This was truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was in Raja Ampat off the western tip of Papua in Indonesia, one of the most remote and biologically diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. I was here filming the reefs and marine life in a newly established Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Cruising back to our camp, we noticed a small fishing boat anchored in a shallow lagoon within the protected area. Curious, we decided to investigate. As we drew near, we made a grizzly discovery. On the blood soaked deck, covered with buzzing flies, were dozens and dozens of shark fins that had recently been sliced off of small reef sharks. Looking into the water, an odd shape at the bottom caught our attention. Immediately we identified it as the body of a shark. It took all my willpower to control my feelings of anger and frustration. And then I recalled, where sharks should have been abundant on every protected reef, we had not seen sharks the entire week. Now it clear why. It was also immediately clear what I had to do.
The world needed to see what I was witnessing.

Flipping my video camera on, I documented the gruesome reality of what lay strewn before me: the fins, the blood, the flies, grisly contradictions to these magnificent surroundings. Loading my camera into my underwater housing, I threw on my snorkel gear and slipped into the water. Below me strewn across coral reef were a dozen, dead juvenile reef sharks rolling gently with the current. Descending down, my stomach turned as I saw the blood seeping from wounds where their fins had been. These beautiful sharks had been ruthlessly sliced and thrown overboard to drown, killed just for their fins.

After filming all I could stomach, I returned to the boat. Enraged, I wanted to do something. Certainly this reckless harvesting must be illegal. Our guide Andy then informed me that the fisherman had presented a legal shark fishing permit which for $30 granted him the right to fin sharks for 30 days. Quick math revealed 10 sharks per day times 30 days, or 300 sharks for $30. 10 cents a shark! This was the price for the life of each of the juvenile reef sharks below me on the reef. But what was the cost on the marine ecosystem and the local community that depended on it?

Something changed in me that day, something that would grow inside and drive me to dedicate my life to ending the short-sighted destruction of marine environments and first and foremost, by halting the shark fin trade.

Upon my return, I discovered that most people had no idea what was happening in the oceans and that most had never experienced what lay beneath the surface. I also learned that when given the opportunity to explore and interact with marine life or to experience it virtually through engaging underwater footage and stories, that they did start to care. A lot. And once they cared, they wanted to take action.

So much of what I have learned about the oceans, I have learned while diving and filming firsthand what the underwater realm is truly about. Much of what we watch, read and hear regarding marine life is only a shadow of the reality. For many people, the closest they come to this world is a seafood restaurant or sushi bar. To truly appreciate the ocean, there is no better way than to immerse yourself in it. And to truly know what is going on, you must witness it yourself.Take sharks for instance, one of my favorite subjects. We are taught to believe sharks are mindless killers, that even a drop of blood will send them into a feeding frenzy and that most species of sharks are "man-eaters". Prior to diving with sharks I wanted to believe this wasn't true but years of media conditioning and the "Jaws" phenomenon had left their mark. Hundreds of dives later with sharks, and I am certain the myths couldn't be further from the truth. I have drifted with schools of over 500 hammerhead sharks and watched as 100 reef sharks formed hunting packs at night. I have knelt within touching distance as a dozen bull sharks, some over 1000 lbs and 11 feet long, fed on fish. 

During the filming of our documentary Shark Angels (www.sharkangels.com), three amazing women from the conservation field joined me and spent 4 days, without cages, diving with a dozen tiger sharks and 50 lemon sharks. Our goal was to demonstrate that even the "fiercest" of the sharks had no intentions of harming people. And in all these years and all these dives with sharks, I never witnessed a deliberate attempt by a shark to injure or kill. What I did witness, to my great joy, was countless divers have that "ah ha" moment when they realized the truth about these amazing creatures.

Sadly, during this same period, I have watched sharks disappear from the oceans. Where once sharks were plentiful on all the reefs of the world, they have effectively vanished from all but a few remaining sanctuaries. And even within these "sanctuaries" they are being systematically targeted and killed for their fins. Fins! Less than 3-5% of the sharks total mass, the other 95% either thrown back in the ocean or used as a cheap by-product. And of this 3-5%, only the small strands of cartilage will be used with the rest discarded as trash. These cartilage strands will be boiled and used as a flavorless thickener, like thin noodles, in a watery soup flavored by chicken stock. Shark Fin Soup.

Once popular on only special occasions among the ultra-elite in Asia, the recent economic boom in China coupled with intense marketing by the shark fin trade, has fueled an explosion in demand. And the result, over 100 million sharks are killed every year primarily for their fins. In the past 20 years, many of the great shark species populations have been reduced by over 90%. If nothing changes, sharks are heading on a one way road to extinction.

So what if we remove sharks? Slow to grow and slow to reproduce, sharks have perfectly evolved over 400 million years to keep our oceans in balance by removing the sick and managing populations. Remove the sharks and the populations of faster growing predatory fish they control explode and wipe out successive layers in the food chain. Ultimately the fish stocks collapse including the small fish that maintain the coral, algae takes hold and the reefs die. No reefs, no fish. What nature developed over 400 million years to keep our oceans healthy, man is wiping out in less than 50 years. Over 1 billion people depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods and survival. What will happen when over 1 billion people lose their jobs or go hungry? That is why sharks matter.

In the developed world we live in societies where our consumption behavior is disconnected from its impact on the environment. With regard to fish, most of us don't know and don't care to know where our fish comes from, how it is caught or raised, what by-catch is associated with it, and what waste products it produces. As a result, the ocean are being effectively strip-mined, utilizing some of the most destructive and wasteful fishing practices imaginable. And the result, sharks along with all other large species of fish have been largely fished out of most of the seas with hardly any notice or public outcry. And now, we are fishing our way down, removing successive layers in the food chain.

I have just returned from filming again Raja Ampat, several years after that first encounter with shark finning. As part of my documentary on the global shark fin trade, I spent a week following and filming shark fishermen in the region. When you consider that Raja Ampat is one of the most ecologically diverse and pristine marine ecosystems left on earth, the situation couldn't have been more depressing. Where just a few years ago long-line fishermen were pulling out a dozen or so 1.5 meter long reef sharks in a single day, they were now catching almost nothing except a handful of baby sharks over the period of a week.

Having wiped out the sharks in Southern Raja Ampat, most of the shark fishermen had moved on to find new shark fishing grounds. The shark fishermen that remain were now using miles of bottom drift nets instead of lines. These nets scrape off the coral reefs and catch everything in their path including baby sharks, reef fish, turtles, rays and manta rays. The situation had clearly hit rock bottom for sharks and the outlook for the rest of the ecosystem is not good.

After a week of documenting desperate fishermen plunder their dwindling resources, I spent the latter part of my visit filming in the Marine Protected Area surrounding Misool Eco Resort, the very same area I had first encountered the shark finning in. Where only a few years ago no sharks were seen, on many dives I now observed young reef sharks patrolling the walls and reefs, and in the resort bay, up to a dozen juvenile black tip reef sharks hunting in the shallows. The local villages that once fished these waters were now employed at the resort and as rangers. They were partners in the protection of their reefs. Their jobs and the entire marine protected area were funded through dive eco-tourism. A far more sustainable way to profit from the oceans.

This really struck home with me. The unique combination of marine protection, community involvement and sustainable tourism can turn the tide on a seemingly impossible situation, a beacon of hope for our oceans in peril. Even in a short period of time, the transformation can be significant. In addition to stopping certain behaviors, if we just change 'how' we do things and consider the impact of our actions on the environment, we can make a big difference. And the more people that consciously choose to become part of the solution, the more global in scale this impact will be.

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