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: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39381