Saturday, September 26, 2009

Be a Shark Friendly Consumer... Help Protect Sharks When You Buy

Many people assume that because they don’t eat shark fin soup – then they can’t possibly be contributing to the demise of the sharks. And while shark fin soup does account for a considerable amount of shark consumption, there are many other culprits. It isn’t just something that can be blamed on a single culture or country.

Often, I find many people surprised – including myself – to discover what shark is actually used in. And it isn’t always the usual, easy to identify products, say with the word shark in the product name, like shark steaks, shark teeth or shark leather. Certain energy drinks, pet supplements, vaccines, vitamins, lotions, and even lipstick are all known to contain shark products.

One quite underhanded technique, restaurants often employ is masking the use of shark by changing the name. Take for instance, the poor, little Spiny Dogfish Shark. Not a well-known, charismatic shark so it remains in the shadows of its sexy cousins: the tigers, bulls, and hammerheads. But, the Spiny Dogfish Sharks’ population is plummeting worldwide – so badly that it is considered commercially extinct in certain areas. And this relatively unknown sharks was one of two (or three if you run with the folks that put the sawfish in this group) being considered last year for addition to the CITES Appendix that currently protects only white, whale and basking sharks from international trade.

Who would eat this shark? Well, if you live in the UK, maybe you or someone you know. How is that possible? Because these sharks have been re-labeled in the UK to a more, well, appealing term: Rock Salmon. Mmmm… Sounds far more tasty to those who eat fish, no?

Indeed, the majority of the fish & chip shops that so many Brits know and love commonly have Rock Salmon on the menu. And even if it isn’t on the menu, a simple enquiry will lead you to discover it is often available by request or even featured as a special. That’s why many of us in shark conservation have stopped frequenting these places. We would never support a restaurant or store that sold shark – even if the chips are the best thing we have ever tasted.

That is why we were thrilled to find a fish & chips shop in Windsor on our Shark Awareness week visit that was indeed shark friendly. (And of course it would have to be – since Windsor is the first town ever to be shark friendly.) No rock salmon sold here! Good for you, Ronnie Shaw.

For some of us, like Steve Roest, CEO of Sea Shepherd, it was the first batch of chips enjoyed in a long, long while. And for some of us, it was a first – and I must say, with the malt vinegar, I think I was pretty much eating little slices of heaven – that was until I couldn’t stand watching Steve drool as I enjoyed them, having scarfed his own down too quickly. Surprisingly, he turned down the offer for “seconds”, but only because it was actually “fourths” considering he had managed to weasel half of both Kim and my chips as well.

The moral of this story, besides of course exercising some control when consuming chips with others lest they out you on Facebook to the world, is to always be an aware, informed consumer. Know what is in that “pollock” you are eating in the form of crab sticks or fish cakes (possibly shark). Don’t take or drink any supplements with “Chondroitin“ - derived from shark cartilage - in them. Never use any cosmetic products (including makeup, lotions and deodorants) that contain Squalene which is shark liver oil – in fact just buy the animal-friendly variety. No matter how cute those shark’s tooth earrings are, or the shark leather wallet, don’t buy them. And under no circumstances order the Rock Salmon, let alone eat at a restaurant that serves it. In fact, if you are really serious about protecting sharks, since over ½ of that 100,000,000 sharks caught yearly are caught as by-catch, only eat sustainably caught seafood, or, preferably, do like I do and just refrain from eating anything from the sea. That way you can be sure you are doing your part.

To enjoy Shark Friendly chips when in Windsor, visit: Ronnie Shaw's Great British Fish & Chips on Thames Road right across from the castle. Tell Ronnie we sent you!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sharks Board doing its civil duty to destroy the planet... More white sharks killed

And the killing continues...

Sharks Board caught a 4.2 meter white shark (almost 1 ton) on a drumline three days ago in Zinkwazi and a 2.8 meter white shark yesterday.

Both sharks are protected in South Africa - and world wide - and on the IUCN red list. Apparently there is much controversy around how KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board caught the sharks as usual (reportedly they released the first shark from a drumline - which is highly unlikely since the mortality rate of whites on drumlines is incredibly high), but the pictures speak for themselves and are particularly haunting. And of course, those who love the Jaws stereotype are all a flutter spreading the news.

Those of us who care about sharks and care about their conservation (or just care about this planet) need to take the effort up a notch. Especially now that the South Africa tourism department in a genius marketing ploy is encouraging people to come to South Africa to see their unique "big seven" (the only African nation to offer this) which in addition to the usual terrestrial animals includes whales and sharks now. Ironically, KZN Sharks Board reports to the same minister of tourism as well... So, which is it Minister, you want them dead for tourists or alive for tourists??? Pathetic.

Please get involved at

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Nice Response Humana... I am definitely relieved now.

After writing an email 5 days ago to Humana, horrified they had recommended the millions of people that attend Taste of Chicago should east shark if they want to make a "healthier choice" (though the consumption of shark carries warnings from the EPA, FDA and World Health Organization), I finally received a response.

I received an email back from their PR today department thanking me for my "interest in the matter". It is reassuring to know "they are taking my thoughts on this matter into consideration." Silently, an asterisk appeared on their online literature indicating the "healthier choice" shark entree was not advisable for consumption by pregnant women and children - though if you attend the Taste, you certainly won't know this and the dish still remains on their list of recommendations and the material that was printed before the warning. A silent admission of guilt.

(Revised Humana literature available online.)

How is this healthy? The Department of Health in New York City and in the State of Florida recommend not consuming shark. So why is it ok for Chicagoans, Humana? And haven't we learned our lesson witnessing China struggle with its milk contamination? I guess saving face is just as important in US Corporations as well. Best start looking out for your own health - because your health care company certainly isn't.

(Revised Humana site.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Humana wants you to eat a nice healthy... shark steak

Today, I am embarrassed to call myself a Chicagoan.

Just when you thought people were catching on to the issues with eating shark, we were shocked to learn that a supposed leader in health care known for enabling people to make well-informed decisions regarding their health and healthy lifestyles is recommending the consumption of shark – in a very public format. Yes, you heard that right. Humana - a HEALTH CARE organization - has decided to promote shark meat as one of the "healthier choice" entrees featured at the Taste of Chicago festival. The dish, Shark Vera Cruz, is being served by Polo Café, and owner Dave Samber, to the millions of individuals attending the two-week festival who may choose to take Humana up on their incredibly irresponsible and erroneous recommendation.

Humana has effectively provided a seal of approval for a “dish” that carries warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Defense Fund, Seafood Watch, and the New York Department of Health, to name but a few highly respected organizations. I guess Humana is saying you can cut the calories and pile on the Mercury?

Indeed, there is much research and publicly available data regarding the serious issues associated with consumption of shark meat due to the health risks posed by the high levels of mercury and other contaminants found in the shark’s flesh. Mercury that is known to cause significant health issues for pregnant women and children. Humana, what were you thinking?

In addition to the risks posed by consuming sharks personally, it is hard to believe they can ignore the significant health risks posed to our planet. Sharks around the world are threatened with extinction due to overfishing. Studies out this week indicate conservatively that a 1/3 of shark species are threatened with extinction. With populations of many shark species down by as much as 90%, this news couldn’t have come at a worse time. Humana, what were you thinking?

How can Humana, a supposed environmental leader, not realize as the apex predators of the oceans, the role of sharks is to keep other marine life in healthy balance and to regulate the world’s largest and most important ecosystem? Instead, they are supporting the continued consumption and removal of sharks from the very environment upon which we depend – wreaking havoc on our planet. Those of us who read are well aware that regional elimination of sharks can cause disastrous effects including the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs. Humana, what were you thinking?

We have notified Humana and have made them aware of the situation. Educated and enlightened, Humana should immediately rescind its recommendation and MORE IMPORTANTLY issue a retracting statement to all media outlets the recommendations were promoted to (which sadly are quite extensive). The damage that has been done needs to be undone immediately. Additionally, the recommendation should be withdrawn from the literature at the Taste of Chicago booth, and instead, women and children should be properly warned about the dangers of consuming sharks – consistent with the recommendations of the EPA and the FDA.

Please appeal to Humana, the City of Chicago, and Polo Café, as we have, to stop supporting tthe consumption of shark meat: for our, and our planet's, health. And please copy all of the media outlets that have carried the story. You can make phone calls or send emails to the following individuals:

Polo Café:
Dave Samber - Owner
+1 (773) 927-POLO

Jim Turner - Manager, Corporate Media Relations
+1 (502) 476-2119

City of Chicago, Mayor's Office of Special Events (MOSE)
Megan McDonald, Executive Director
Mayor's Office of Special Events
121 N. LaSalle Street, Room 806
Chicago, IL 60602

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Holista Shark Cartilage Pills are no more!

Congratulations to Shark Angel Kim and all of Sea Shepherd's hard efforts to persuade Holista to cease all production of Shark Cartilage Products. This is a huge win for sharks!


Monday, April 27, 2009

Scoring a Try for Sharks

(Julie with The Crusaders post-dive. Photo by Mark Addison.)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to accompany a very special team of individuals when they encountered sharks for the first time. And, the results similar to so many before them, for this shark conservationist, were inspiring. And reminded me again why this fight is so worth fighting.

While still in Durban last week, I joined New Zealand’s Rugby team, the Crusaders, many of whom are also All Blacks, on their first dive with the sharks of Shark Park. I have got to hand it to the guys – they endured some of the worst conditions I have ever dove in. The seas were so rough that it took almost 20 minutes to launch! And after a harrowing ride out to the dive site, all of the big, tough guys were looking, well not so tough and rather green – and not just because they were a bit nervous.

But, they jumped in and in a heartbeat, shifted their perspectives. Entering into a sea of blacktips, they eagerly pointed them out to one another as they swam amongst them. It wasn’t long before our first tiger, a girl I call Smiley in memory of my brother’s adopted greyhound who also had a permanent grin on her face, showed up. In true Smiley form, she swam towards us on the surface, quite inquisitive and quite close. Between her unnerving grin delivered what some might call way too close for comfort, and the brutal seas which resulted in everyone hurling including myself, it was a day not to be forgotten!

(Bronson swims with his new-found friend Smiley. Photo by Mark Addison.)

When we got back to Blue Wilderness, the guys were incredibly charged up and quite passionate about their experience, embarrassed that perhaps they too had once fallen for the “Jaws” myth. But when it came time to do my ten minute conservation briefing that I do at the end of most dives, as part of the diving conservation program we are rolling out, I figured there was no way I would keep these superstars’ attentions. Especially because lunch had been served.

But, just as Smiley’s behavior had startled them, theirs’ completely floored me. They stopped and gave me their full attention, hung on every word, asked dozens of educated questions and on that afternoon, became passionate shark conservationists.

After the presentation, Paul and I interviewed them on camera for a piece that was being aired here in South Africa and I couldn’t have been prouder of their genuine and educated perspective. Rugby player after rugby player recanted the sadness they felt with the realization that sharks are misunderstood and how tragic it is that it is that irrational fear, in some ways, leading to their demise. And each declared how they were personally going to change that. In fact, we are now working together with Blue Wilderness and the Crusaders to put together a powerful viral video on the experience that carries a strong conservation message that will be posted, amongst other places on their website.

It isn’t because they are famous, or heros to a whole legion of fans, that I was delighted to be in their presence. I am not the type to get star-struck and personally, given my complete American-based ignorance to the sport, that fame is wasted on me. But, the fact that they have decided to use that fame and reach people that most of us never could is why the Crusaders are now my heros too.

(The original Smiley. The similarities are haunting, no?)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saving Sharks... through High School Students

(One of the blacktips we caught and tagged.)

A few months ago, I was reminded how important it is to work with our children, raising a new generation of conservationists to take over where we leave off in the hopes they can be more successful than we were. I have always enjoyed teaching kids about sharks, loving how open minded and thoughtful they are. But this time, I had an even greater joy - I was given the opportunity to watch some pretty inspiring people infect young adults with a passion for sharks… and science.

(The students participating in the SFSSP the day I joined them.)

I met up with the South Florida Student Shark Program (SFSSP) in the Keys, one beautiful Sunday morning, with the intention of learning more about their work. Neil Hammerschlag, a dedicated scientist and conservationist, runs the two-year old program funded by the Hoover Foundation and University of Miami. Their goal? To study the habitat and health of the shark population in the keys to ensure the sharks’ continued critical existence in these waters. Their main scientific tools? High school students.

(The team in action. Pictures by Neil Hammerschlag.)

Yes, that’s right. High school students are doing much of the work. While I can shamefully recall being concerned with things like finding cool combat boots (yes, I was a little bit of a rebel) and my favorite band at the time (Depeche Mode of course), this group of young adults – at the same age I was - are worried enough about the health of the oceans to give up their weekends to attempt catching and tagging sharks.

(The SFSSP gang bragging about 13 sharks!!!)

I was thoroughly impressed and excited with the work Neil Hammerschlag, LeAnne Winn, Adam Matulik and the team are doing – going far beyond studying the range, size, and health of the local shark population – but also examining the high mercury content and other chemicals such us neurotoxins in the shark’s flesh. You see, their work gives all of us shark conservationists a powerful weapon in our arsenal to stop those who consume shark fin soup. As apex predators, the sharks are amassing dangerous doses of methyl-mercury in their flesh – even in their fins - which is consumed when they are eaten. One bowl of shark fin soup is often enough to cause birth defects in pregnant women, and mercury poisoning leads to sterility and nervous system issues. Mercury poisoning is so common that 1 in 3 Chinese born women tested in New York city had four times the FDA approved limit in their blood. Through the SFSSP’s work, high mercury levels in Floridian sharks can now be proven. What’s more, Neil’s team is contributing to a world-wide effort to examine shark tissue for other contaminants, including a chemical that leads to brain disorders such as Alzhemiers. Ironically the soup meant to symbolize health and prosperity is a dangerous concoction of environmental poisons.

On the day I joined the team, we headed to an area that was home to a deep channel between two Keys and set the initial ten drumlines. While I am usually the one covered in dead fish, it was such a treat to have eleven students eager to get messy! The students prepared the fish, baited the hooks, laid the lines and took samples. I was already smiling to see such enthusiasm when it was time to check the first line.

So imagine how big my smile was to find that on the 15 lines we set, we caught 13 sharks! A new SFSSP record! (And finally, maybe my curse was over. Yes, I am always the one who gets on a boat to see nothing and get no results only to hear from someone that only the day prior, that they saw synchronized white sharks breaching, or an aggregation of 100 whale sharks, or they tagged the world’s largest bull shark, or recorded a bait ball that consisted of 12 different elasmobranch species so big it was visible even in space.)

The boat was buzzing with activity as the team of scientists and students worked side by side to quickly pull in each shark minimizing impact on the animal, take its measurements and specifics, obtain a core sample and a fin clip, and tag it with two separate tags. 4 bull sharks, 1 nurse shark, 4 lemon sharks, and 5 black tips! It was absolutely amazing.

In all of the action, I managed to chat with a few kids to determine how these experiences were impacting them. Of the 6 kids I talked to, four wanted a career that would allow them to get involved in environmental science or marine biology, five were now using seafood choice cards and the one who was a fisherman had stopped catching sharks – as did his whole family. And what’s more, each one of them told me, with complete passion and total believability (not to mention accuracy), why it was so important to protect sharks, given their role in our planet’s overall health. My spirits soared when I imagined all of the kids whose lives SFSSP had changed – and then, in turn, all of the people whose minds were changed about sharks because of these compassionate, committed kids. SFSSP truly is giving sharks, and our youth, a chance.

Without a doubt, the work SFSSP is doing is absolutely critical. Not just to improve our collective understanding for sharks, or even to stop them from being chased into extinction, but to make this world a better place – for generations to come.

To learn more about SFSSP, please check out their blog on the Shark Savers site – and their website.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Tuna fishermen have been reporting loads of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) off Cape Point, South Africa. Morne’ on behalf of the SOSSC and Shark Spotters went to investigate and dive with these cobalt-blue sharks. What he saw both mesmerized and disgusted him.

Warm 20 ºC water, 10 meter visibility and loads of blue sharks – this is something every shark diving enthusiast will take advantage of given half the chance. Five am on Sunday morning Morne’ headed off (I stayed behind to catch up on office work) and after a 2 hour long boat trip they reached the point were the water is good for yellowfin and longfin tuna – and sharks! Pretty soon the giant yellowfin tuna were circling and the first sharks appeared. Morne’ quickly hopped in the water with camera in hand. This was his second blue shark diving experience, the first being while diving under a whale carcass a few years back with a single small animal, and he was amazed at the beauty of these sharks. Cobalt blue and silver bodies diving around him gave the feeling that he was in a fantasy world for sharks!

Unfortunately, after these first majestic encounters a 1.5 meter blue shark came swimming up to him and as it got closer Morne’ saw that it had a severe wound around its gills. Upon closer inspection he saw what looked to be fishing line wrapped around the shark’s gills which was cutting deep into the flesh. This particular shark stayed with Morne’ for half an hour and Morne’ was able to film and photograph the shark. What more than likely happened in this case was that a blue shark was caught on a fishing line and while being reeled in probably twisted around trying to free itself. The line was either cut or the shark broke free, but the fishing line was left wrapped tightly around the animal’s body. This monofilament line is very strong and not flexible and as the shark grows it slices through the skin. In all likelihood this shark will die a slow and painful death as it continues to grow.

Many sharks are caught as bycatch while targeting tuna and responsible fishing guidelines encourage anglers to cut the line as close to the hook as possible to prevent this kind of entanglement. The hooks themselves will eventually rust away.

Blue sharks are the most heavily fished sharks in the world mainly as result of by-catch and are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. For more about blue sharks visit:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tracking a Giant: Meet Nyami Nyami, the 4 meter Bull Shark

(The beautiful Nyami Nyami - photo by Alison Towner)

Three weeks ago, Meaghen McCord from the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) and her team found the 4 meter giant in the Breede River over 15 km from the ocean. She was an over-achieving shark, setting many records – and proving many theories wrong – including the fact she was living far outside of her known range - in an area she wasn't supposed to inhabit. The discovery was a true triumph for Meag who had been self funding the efforts to find these "ghost" sharks who have long been rumored amongst the locals to exist, regardless of the scientific skeptics that surrounded her.

And, it is an amazing discovery for the Zambezis, who you will recall from a previous blog entry are extremely threatened due to a lack of healthy estuaries in Southern Africa which they use as breeding grounds. It appears the Zambezis do indeed have a healthy place to strengthen their dwindling numbers. It is just hundreds of kilometers South, but I guess no one told Nyami Nyami, our massive and rather clever lady who is most likely soon to become a mom.

Meag and her team tagged the beautiful shark and tracked her for 43 consecutive hours as she swam from fishing boat to fishing boat, out into the ocean and then, far upstream. They vowed to return with more support – allowing them to track Nyami Nyami for 24 hours a day for two weeks straight. It isn't often you have the opportunity to get into the head of a shark by studying her every movement for two weeks, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to participate.

(Tagging Nyami Nyami so we can track her - photo by Alison Towner)

It has been an incredible experience to track Nyami Nyami – and gain a deeper understanding of this misunderstood animal. And what a complex creature she is. She loves swimming in water less than a meter deep on low tides, rubbing her belly on the mud. Then, there are times she enjoys lying stationary in deeper pits probably watching her world swim by. Sometimes she missions at an incredible speed against the current to one of her favorite destinations, and others, she rides the current lazily moving the same speed as our drifting boat. We have tracked her from the river mouth upstream over 30 kilometers and back again. She certainly gets around.

(Tracking the ghost shark... With our trusty Skipper - and brave shark wrangler, Steve Smuts)

Nyami Nyami is quite curious, and often swims up to those on the water – either wading or in boats. While sometimes she will ignore fisherman, other times, she heads straight for them, sitting patiently on their lines waiting for them to catch something. When they do, she is always up for an easy meal – just adding to the adventure that is fishing in the Breede River. She is also very sensitive to vibrations and is often drawn to those making them. I have many times witnessed her swim right up to people waist deep in the water digging for prawns, to merely check them out and then move on. She even swam up on some swimmers yesterday. Never has there been a shark attack in the Breede River. Indeed, Nyami Nyami has had every opportunity to expand her diet; clearly we are not on her menu. Yes, 4 meter bull sharks and people can peacefully co-exist. Even in murky water.

(Paul writes down the data...)

(As Julie tracks her...)

And Nyami Nyami is not alone. We have plenty of evidence to prove that there are more of her kind. Fin sightings, breachings, huge 100 lb Cobbs bitten in half – all attributed to someone other than our girl, since we know exactly where she was at the time each occurred – and it wasn't near any of the other instances of evidence.

(100 lb Cob head - chowed by someone other than our girl... Fisherman fought with the fish for an hour before the line instantly went slack... This is what he reeled in. Photo by JP Botha.)

Although it seems like I am tracking a ghost since she rarely can be seen in the murky water that is less than a half meter visibility, she has breached for us, and for a few minutes each day, she shows an impressive dorsal and caudal fin. So for brief moments, I am visually connected to my new obsession. More spectacular for me, though, are the frequent moments that the tracking device, the VR100, gives us readings of 105. 70+ means she is 10 – 15 meters away… 105? Well, she is nuzzling our boat!

(A brief glimpse of Nyami Nyami rubbing her belly on the mud.)

But what I have found more powerful is the community's reaction to Nyami Nyami. As a conservationist with an undying passion for sharks, I have soaring highs and crushing lows depending on whom I am speaking to. Some want to kill her for threatening their fish supply - not realizing the important role she plays in keeping their stocks healthy. Some love the idea of sport fishing for the world's largest trophy set of bull shark jaws. Others are now terrified, even though there were always sharks in the river. But fortunately, those individuals are fewer than those that are absolutely thrilled with the discovery. Many community members are excited about the finding, with people frequently stopping us to ask about her latest escapades. They love the idea that these waters are healthy enough to support Bull Sharks, when almost nowhere else in South Africa can. Often, we pull up to fisherman who are amused at the fact a shark larger than their boat is hanging out, just waiting to see what they catch. Even the swimmers who we notified about the shark below them were shocked but quite curious.

It is fortunate, since the community's support is desperately needed, as she, like so many other sharks, requires grassroots protection. Some question the release of her existence, fearing it is her death wish. Hardly. Instead of allowing a few trophy hunters to come in and silently kill Nyami Nyami (since they witnessed her original capture), instead, due to the publicity, MCM has put an immediate moratorium on all shark fishing in the river until further information can be gathered - with a fine of R500,000 for violators. But legislation, as we all know, is only a small part of the battle. Enforcement is far more important. Thankfully, the community is now self-policing, keeping any potential hunters out. It is my hope that those passionate about the river will continue to serve as Nyami Nyami, and all of her friends', guardian angels. She, and Bull Sharks everywhere, need all the protection they can get.

*SASC has funded much of this effort and desperately needs your support to continue tracking Nyami Nyami and all of their good work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shark Angels in Sport Diver - February 2009

To read the article, click on the images...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The silent killer: the disappearance of the world's estuaries

Our impact on the oceans over the last century has been greater than all previous centuries combined. We are quickly changing the oceans’ chemistry, temperature and biodiversity while at the same time, only just beginning to understand these changes’ implications. We know so little really; we are still learning about the oceans’ important role in our climate, atmosphere, and planet, still exploring their depths, and still discovering their inhabitants. And as we slowly build our knowledgebase, pollution, habitat destruction, global warming and overfishing are ravaging our seas – and all that dwell within.

Sharks sit at the forefront of this lethal combination of catastrophes, vulnerable to each of them. Sharks are being fished at the rate of 100,000,000 sharks per year, with many regional species up to 98% extinct. Bottom-dwelling sharks are chased by trawlers, whose fishing practices are so destructive, the muddy tell-tale signs of the underwater bulldozers demolishing the sea beds can be seen from satellites. And pelagic sharks frequently join the 43 million tons of bycatch caught by fisherman on long-lines and nets. No matter how they are caught, they are brought on board to have their fins sliced off - usually ending with the shark being thrown back into the water to die and rot.

At the same time sharks are being hunted for their fins at unsustainable rates, they are also struggling with the contamination of their environment. Not only have sharks absorbed the highly toxic methyl-mercury which compromises, amongst other things, their ability to reproduce successfully, but now scientists are also finding other strange neuro-toxins (linked to brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) in their flesh. Chemicals, whether dumped or run-off, enter the food chain and become concentrated as they make their way up the food chain. Even the tons and tons of plastics in our ocean – forming two “islands” twice the size of Texas in the Pacific and Indian oceans – are decomposing to a point that the polymer particles, which will take hundreds if not thousands of years to dissipate, are consumed. Some seawater has 7 times more plastic in it than zooplankton, and so this plastic poison also enters the food chain. All of these chemicals are literally poisoning the sharks – and anyone who dares to eat them.

As if not threatened enough, the struggling shark population is also battling with the destruction of habitat. Many sharks and rays rely upon estuaries as nurseries for their young. And sadly, estuaries around the world are under attack. Not only are the fragile ecosystems more susceptible to pollution and overfishing, they are often in areas considered prime real estate. Many estuaries have fallen victim to homes and businesses – either directly or due to the topographical changes urban development force.

The Zambezi Sharks of Southern Africa are one such casualty, for centuries, relying upon toxin-free estuaries to continue their cycle of life. While healthy in the 1960’s, the Zambezi Sharks’ population, also known as Bull Sharks, has plummeted – missing in large numbers from their usual haunts like Protea Banks. Many attribute this in great part to the disappearance of healthy estuaries. During the last 50 years, one by one, the sharks’ birthing places vanished, thanks to river damming, population explosions, and industrial pollution. In fact, reportedly only one estuary remains accessible, protected and healthy enough to serve as a nursery on the eastern coast of South Africa. Shark nets, targeted fishing, and destruction due to ignorant fear or a misplaced sense of competition, combined with an inability to rear healthy young have decimated the population.

Nearby Mozambique and its estuaries are thought to be the Zambezi Sharks’ salvation. So we decided to investigate this theory firsthand. On our recent trip, we visited countless estuaries and even dove in two. And the results, for this conservationist, were frightening.

Many of the estuaries we found were polluted from nearby towns and cities, serving as a makeshift waste facility for garbage, industrial waste and untreated sewage. Others had hotels built upon them, with what appeared to be little concern for their impact upon the fragile ecosystem. And more were dried up, with dead mangrove trees serving as the only indicator to the area’s previous vivacity, victims to changes in water flows that development and climate change inevitably bring about.

Imagine our excitement when we found a large estuary in Tofu that – from the surface – initially appeared to be healthy. We grabbed our gear and decided to see for ourselves… visions of immature sharks and rays dancing in my head.

The first thing that struck me as we approached was the lack of birds surrounding the area. Not a good sign. And then, as we walked to the site, I realized the luxury hotel next to us was dumping their waste directly into the water. It wasn’t until I saw the locals’ fish nets – installed with such intensity you can actually see them when flying above – did I finally acknowledge that perhaps we were mistaken.

We swam towards the mangroves knowing that their roots typically serve as homes for countless creatures. But all we found was a mossy, slime growing over sad strands of sea grass with long, gelatinous sea cucumbers and the spindly legs from sea stars woven in between. 90 minutes in the water and I could count the other life forms we encountered on one hand – a single crab, a small transparent shrimp, and a few silvery fish. Here was a huge bay that spanned as far as the eye could see and should have been bustling with life; instead, it was eerily silent. All that could be harvested from the estuary had been, and with the ecosystem completely disrupted and probably contaminated, what remained was the low level, and incredibly resilient members of the food chain – reproducing in large numbers due to the lack of balance.

For all practical purposes, this estuary, like so many others, was dead.

Resolute, we headed further north, finally escaping the populated areas and tourist destinations. After 6 hours of driving on non-existent roads, we happened upon an isolated estuary in Pomene Bay with a hotel perched aside the lovely bay, allowing us to spend five days observing the estuary – from above and under the water.

Our spirits soared as we heard stories of frogfish, sea horses, brindle bass, crabs and even dolphins. And over the next five days, our dives did not disappoint. Swimming through the beautifully healthy sea grass, we found a treasure trove. Anemones with huge, colorful popcorn shrimp, grasses and sponges entwined with several species of sea horses, black, yellow and orange frog fish lurking about looking for their next meal, beautiful juvenile angelfish displaying the vibrant patterns of youth, sand dollars hairy and purple shuffling on the bottom, and countless varieties of flounders, nudibranchs, scorpionfish, eels, and pipe fish this muck diving veteran had never seen before. We also met several scientists who were busy discovering new species – or species thousands of miles away from their reported home.

What a special place. It was like diving in the macro-heaven Sulawesi, Indonesia – without the garbage.

Our frequent boat trips through the estuary delivered topside sightings of flamingos, humpback dolphins, schools of hunting, large game fish, and even a turtle. Yes, this was a healthy estuary – one that was serving as a nursery and protected area for many species, including sharks no doubt. And one desperately in need of protection.

You see, it wasn’t long before our rose colored glasses wore off and we began noticing the locals that descended upon the estuary in full force day after day at low tide. Dozens of women filling bags and bags of razor clams. Fisherman dragging tiny mesh nets through the fragile grass catching fish, eels and everything else in their path, later throwing the precious bycatch not yet realizing its commercial value, like the sea horses, carelessly aside on the beach to die. Crowds of men with long poles who would stab at the water with as much caution as if they were jack hammering a pothole. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Day after day, this place was being assaulted. How much longer could it possibly last?

This place, like so many others, is falling victim to our collective ignorance and greed, while we blindly ignore the tremendous consequences upon things needed for our own basic survival. Remove the fish, remove the sharks, kill the fragile ecosystem and we jeopardize far more than a single estuary. We jeopardize the already strained oceans, our life source. And what’s worse, this is happening all over the world. Estuaries are threatened with extinction.

Perhaps there is hope for this estuary. The resort manager, Joe, a passionate lover of the oceans, recently convinced Maritima (the governmental agency responsible for protecting their coasts) to come and see the estuary for themselves. Not only did Maritima protect the area in front of the resort - the artificial reef – from gill-netters and agree to assess the impact in three months, but they are considering making the entire estuary a marine protected area. Of course, enforcement is always a challenge – I joined Joe in chasing away fisherman netting where they were not allowed. We also filmed what we saw – both the good and the bad – and are providing it to the government, to further the cause, writing letters to the ministry as well.

Our population is already at levels that are not sustainable from a resource perspective on this planet – so it isn’t surprising that in a country where 80% of the people live below the poverty level, it is a mad rush to take whatever they can. Even less excusable is the fact that more wealthy countries seize this as an opportunity to irresponsibly ravage these resources as well, destroying everything including estuaries in their path. The oceans are both our dumping grounds and our endless supply of life irregardless of our stewardship. It is up to those of us who care and can see the big picture, to stop the destruction. Or minimally, fight the good fight and be very noisy while it happens before our very eyes. The sharks, the sea horses, and even our fellow human beings, depend upon it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Threatening those that threaten: Sharkfinning in Mozambique

Southern Africa has some of the richest shark waters in the world – which is part of the reason I find myself, a shark conservationist from Chicago, USA, drawn here. Over 210 species live in the nearby waters, more than 60 of which can only be found here.

However, like many other places around the globe, Southern Africa's sharks are vanishing before our eyes at alarming rates. Shark finners, motivated by the out of control demand for shark fin, have locked their target and are ravaging one of Africa’s most precious resources. Leaving behind a wake of disaster for the locals – and the rest of the world - who will suffer considerably when these waters are depleted of sharks.

I learned this first-hand on a recent trip to Mozambique.

Offshore, it is estimated that the area surrounding Mozambique has the highest concentration of long-line fishing vessels in the world. Over 200 are targeting shark for their fins. Any one of these vessels is capable of catching more than 100 tons of sharks per trip, quickly offloading to factory ships offshore only to fin again. In June, an illegal Namibian ship was seized with 43 tons of sharks, an estimated value of US$5 million, onboard the unlicensed ship.

Inshore, sharks face a similar fate from artesianal fisherman.

With 80% of Mozambicans living below the poverty level, it isn’t surprising that sharkfinning is running rampant. Fins from a single shark can fetch up to US$120, a few months’ income. Consider a small boat can land as many as 1,000 sharks a year and you have the recipe for environmental disaster.

The word is out. Shark fins mean big money and fishermen, desperate to feed their families, are heeding the call.

Before long-line fisheries began in early 2000, anecdotal reports indicate the shores surrounding Mozambique were rich with sharks and rays. These days, it is a very different story, with our own dives consisting of a rare shark or ray sighting only a handful of times. Unfortunately, the lack of infrastructure available for coastal monitoring and enforcement leaves Mozambique, like so many other countries, horribly exposed to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The government estimates that last year, the cost of this fishing to Mozambique was almost US$40 million.

However, a public groundswell is forming. Those passionate about sharks have formed a group called Eyes on the Horizon. A brilliant concept and one long overdue, members serve as the “eyes and ears” for the resource-strapped government. It was their Executive Director, Simon Pearce, who told us about Pomene.

When we arrived in Pomene, we recalled Simon telling us the shark finners were chased out just three weeks prior. A group of migrants who systematically move up the coast of Mozambique, they relocate when a local shark population is depleted – or when a local community becomes fed up with the impact the shark fisherman have on their livelihood – including the fish and tourists that they rely upon. Fishing accounts for over 50% of Mozambican’s incomes so it wasn’t long before local fishermen realized that when the apex predators like sharks are removed, the other fish beneath them on the food chain disappear as well.

Pulling into town, we spied the telltale sign of shark fishing: shark jaws hanging in the roadside curio huts. Upon closer inspection, the fresh, pink flesh on the jaws indicated these were recently caught. There were over a dozen jaws - bulls, tigers, grey reefs - some from sizable animals. When I began asking about the jaws, everyone surrounded me eager to make a sale. But, as more and more questions arose, suddenly everyone’s English was forgotten.

It was obvious the shark fishermen were still nearby.

Searching for shark fisherman is a complex and can also be a dangerous game. Especially in a third world country rife with poverty and crime where English is not readily spoken. You can’t simply go in and start asking questions expecting to be dropped on the deck of a long-liner with a gracious welcome, nor can you intentionally jeopardize the excessive income of a fisherman surrounded by poverty - without putting yourself into immediate jeopardy. Given the money involved, shark fishing is not unlike drug trafficking rife with suspicion, murder and corruption. Many shark finners operate behind veils of secrecy and are known to be ruthless - often times shooting at those that try to stop them. Some of my conservationist friends know this firsthand having found themselves at the business end of machine guns - which I am told are easily come by in Mozambique.

So, instead, you must build rapport and trust with a few locals. You must ask innocent, uninformed questions and remain completely non-judgmental about the responses. You must invest time and learn what motivates the community. You must earn the respect of local conservationists by proving you are passionate and just want to help, easing their suspicions. You must consider everyone an asset extracting bits of information from all you meet, fashioning it together like a complex jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are spread out over miles of terrain. And, you must get lucky. Which, in this case, we did.

After a week building rapport, we earned the trust of a resort owner and his local staff who knew plenty about the shark fisherman – and were willing to serve as our translators and transportation. And we gathered enough intelligence to know the shark fisherman were indeed migrants disliked by the locals, who were supplied their fishing gear by the businessmen that purchased their fins and were actively still fishing five kilometers up the coast in a village whose chief was notoriously corrupt.

That was enough to pull together an expedition to locate the shark finners.

It wasn’t long before we found their camp… and their long-lines. And it wasn’t long before they found us; our boat was identified immediately. These shark fisherman were extremely nervous already – as they had just been chased out of their previous camp. They weren’t about to let it happen again.

A few local fisherman gave their lines up, pointing us in the direction of two buoys, about 50 meters apart and equidistant from shore. Innocent enough, the buoys floated at the surface. If you didn’t know better, you would never have guessed what was sunken below.

The boat full of shark fisherman saw us approach their buoys and immediately went back to their camp for reinforcement. We took advantage of the gap and slipped into the water. But we were told to hurry – it wouldn’t be long before our problems multiplied. So We descended to see what lay below.

What we found was two sets of sunken lines (called bottom lines) one tied to each buoy line near the sandy bottom. A few meters later, we found the first attached long-line with a “j” hook, thick and corroded, ten meters apart from the next hook, baited with what appeared to be eel (later we found they were getting bait from the protected estuary nearby and had been chased away countless times). The fishing lines were heavy ropes with attached metal lines and swivels to ensure a captured shark wouldn’t be able to bite through the line or break free.

The lines extended past the sand, right over the reef, and my heart sank as I recalled all the other long ropes I had seen laying on the fragile coral at the other dive sites we had visited. The fisherman had been there too.

In the short time we dove the lines, we found a huge remora with a hook through its eye socket, bleeding profusely, obviously unintended bycatch. The remora’s sad eyes plead with us to save it though it seemed to have accepted its fate, lying in an unnatural position presumably overcome by agony. We tried desperately to free it, but to no avail. My mask grew blurry and I realized I was shedding tears for what I knew was happening here – and on the rest of the hooks throughout the world that I couldn’t see.

When we ascended, the resort owner told us we must go in a tone that conveyed a clear sense of urgency. Still in shock, we gathered our gear together and prepared for a speedy journey home. As we neared the beach to make our way home, the shark fisherman began pouring out from the bluffs, some with machetes in their hands. There was much shouting and hand waving as they accused us of cutting their lines and dared us to land the boat on shore. And, even though I did not speak Portuguese, there was no mistaking the tone, intensity and visual cues. These fisherman were ready for battle.

The resort owner suddenly realized the guide had a shirt on from the resort and whisked us away before we could be identified – fearful of the ramifications. The night watchmen were put on full alert for days following the incident, as he knew exactly what we were dealing with. We were miles away from any sort of enforcement or support, let alone infrastructure. Laws didn’t apply in places like this – and there was no place to hide.

I was so caught up, it wasn’t until days later that I realized just how much danger we were in. Caught up in passion, I lost all sense of reason having finally found myself with the ability to take on those killing the sharks face to face, and I was willing to do whatever it took. Thankfully, my mates, having grown up in Africa, prudently recommended we return when we have more support and options.

In the meantime, we have turned over the finners’ location to the governmental agency, Maritima, and to Eyes on the Horizon. I am hopeful they will do whatever they can – including the government whom boldly showed commitment to the cause by recently deciding to turn that seized Namibian shark fishing vessel into a patrol boat.

And, we are determined to return to Mozambique to get involved in grass roots efforts, educate local fisherman on other sustainable options, work with Eyes on the Horizon, and, in some small way, contribute towards the establishment of a structure that the rest of the world can follow. We need to send a message that shark finning cannot and should not be tolerated in any country – nor can it be sustainably beneficial, either economically or environmentally.

We are all connected to one another, and to the sharks, who keep our oceans healthy. Countries around the world, like Mozambique, who are struggling with basic socio-economic issues, desperately need everyone’s help to save the last remaining sharks. I just hope we aren’t too late.