Why I care

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Why I care

By Simon McPherson. Photo Paul Hilton.

The whale shark or Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish and is often found in tropical waters across the globe. This is no ordinary species of shark as they feed on plankton by filtering water through their gills, one of only four species of elasmobranch to feed this way. To put it simply, they are big, spotty and (in my view) amazing animals that are the research topic of many different organisations all over the world.

Some people have negative views on sharks, but to me they are the ultimate apex predator: the lions of the ocean.  I believe it is morally unacceptable to be carrying out horrible practices such as shark finning and that it should be compared to owning a tiger skin rug or ivory. So when I heard that whale sharks received international protection, I was overjoyed. Many people have swam alongside these animals and had many magical experiences, including world famous athlete Roberta Mancino. I hope that one day I can swim alongside these gentle giants and enter their world in order to really appreciate them, rather than seeing them in books or documentaries. It is vitally important that more species of shark receive greater protection to ensure a wider audience of people can really appreciate these masters of the sea. There are many reasons why I’m passionate about whale sharks, so here’s a summary as to why I love these spotted giants of the ocean:

(1) The chance to make a difference: So many people don’t seem to truly appreciate how magical these gentle giants are and that sharks don’t deserve the negative image that they have been given throughout the years. To me, the best way to make a difference is by volunteering for marine conservation projects related to whale sharks such as the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. In marine conservation we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to genuinely make a life-changing difference every single day. When life gets tough for threatened species often it these conservation projects that provide the “glue” to hold it all together. They offer the consistency and care that can inspire other people to make a difference for whale sharks. When you think about it what could be better?

(2) They give you vitality and energy: Whilst I’ve not yet had the chance to swim alongside whale sharks, I secretly still feel a child-like wonder when reading books about sharks and believe at the heart of this is the joy and vitality I take from making new discovery every day. Sharks are such amazing creatures that they can often make you laugh and cry and I brim with pride whenever I hear about research projects and conservation efforts that help protect them. I would feel a bit lost without this buzz each day.

(3) The willingness to learn: I am someone who wants to find out more about whale sharks so that I can do what I can to contribute towards the conservation of these animals. I hope that at some point in my career I will have the chance to play my part towards protecting sharks to ensure that they are safeguarded for future generations. I won’t give up and continue my mission to raise awareness of shark conservation, and show how truly amazing whale sharks are.

(4) It was the inspiration to my career: All through my life I have been inspired by reading books and watching documentaries about the oceans and its wildlife, especially sharks. So to me what makes whale sharks so special is that they really are the ultimate gentle giants of the sea. I believe my inspiration for wanting a career in marine conservation is having the chance to play my part in whale shark conservation and ensure that more people treasure them, not remove them from the ocean.

 
Courtesy Dollar Photo Club

Courtesy Dollar Photo Club

 

Shark conservation is the most important way to help the ocean because as apex predators they are vital to keeping balance in the ecosystem and fish populations healthy, if we remove them the whole food web may collapse. Scientists are still conducting research into sharks so that further action can be taken to ensure that they don’t become extinct. At this moment in time experts are unsure what would happen to the oceans if whale sharks were removed entirely. If this happens in my lifetime I would feel let down and if I don’t stand up and play an active part now I would regret it. So to me it is so important that sharks receive the protection they deserve so that they can live on to inspire, teach and invigorate many others to see the wonders of this planet. In this way my passion and enthusiasm can make a difference for Whale Sharks: The Spotted Gentle Giants of the Ocean.

 

Simon McPherson lives in Brighton and is currently studying animal management. He has volunteered for many conservation and animal welfare charities including the Marine Conservation Society, Zoological Society of London, RSPB and Cats Protection.

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How to deal with it

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How to deal with it

Originally posted on The Black Fish Blog Page. Photo by Chris Scarfe.

 

Lou.

 

The Black Fish recently partnered with UK based Fin Fighters to investigate illegal shark fishing and finning in Morocco. Combining Fin Fighters’ scientific expertise on sharks and The Black Fish’s Citizen Inspector Network has laid the foundation for a powerful new collaboration in marine conservation. Fin Fighter Lou Ruddell writes about her experiences working with The Black Fish on the ground in Morocco.

Staring into the big dark eye of the shark a terrible chill came over me, and in that instant it hit me; the cold, stark remembrance of everything I had seen in the last three weeks, and in that very moment I knew my purpose in life, I knew like never before the importance of saving these incredible creatures; of saving sharks.

Then shaking my head and breaking out of my day dream I looked around me, I was sitting in Plymouth train station on my way to a school lecture gazing into the eye of Bruce, my cardboard cut-out Mako shark. Looking at Bruce I had been transported back to a moment when a few weeks ago I was staring onto the eyes of a real Mako shark, a dead Mako shark.

I have always deeply loved sharks and last year I began Fin Fighters; a not for profit group working to end the sale and distribution of shark fin and dedicated to pushing for increased protection of sharks globally. So when The Black Fish approached us to collaborate on a project in Morocco monitoring shark fishing in that area, we jumped at the chance of doing something practical to help save sharks as well as the opportunity of working closely with a group that we greatly respected.

The trip was mainly centred on spending time in ports and markets to see if there was any evidence of sharks or illegal shark fishing and as The Black Fish team taught us how to conduct these inspections we taught them what to look for and how to identify sharks, and together we travelled the coast compiling our findings.

Despite spending the last 3 years researching and campaigning for sharks, until these port inspections I had never seen a shark in the flesh, this for me was the strangest and the most shocking part of the trip, but not for the reason I expected.

Something happens when you are in a port or market monitoring and collecting information – you become centred on that moment and taking that photo or finding that equipment, or finding that shark. Collecting the evidence becomes key. In the adrenaline of that moment every emotion you would expect to be having as a shark lover is absent. You are there to do a job and honestly this completely threw me, at one point I was even handed a baby Mako shark to hold by an enthusiastic fisherman; something I would normally be devastated by. But I felt nothing, for which I was ashamed and confused.

I spent a good deal of time in Morocco beating myself up about my confused reactions to seeing the animals I loved so desperately being slaughtered, but eventually I realised that these emotions were always there, that they were just pushed aside in what was my coping mechanism, and it worked; I honestly don't think I could have done the job otherwise because actually what we saw was for me so deeply and profoundly upsetting.

Fast forward to the plane ride home and suddenly the sobbing starts and it didn’t stop for a good few hours. There it was, it all came out, all that sadness and frustration and confusion - the other passengers thought I was nuts! When it was finished I sat quite calmly and reflected on what we had actually achieved and why it was so necessary to have been there.

We saw many dead and dying sharks but we were doing something to expose the insane extent of that slaughter. Suddenly I felt proud, what we had been doing took courage and a strength I never knew I had.

This trip and working with The Black Fish has taught me many valuable lessons about practical conservation; the biggest of which was how vital it is to learn how to cope with your emotions when confronted by your fears, and how to push past this in order to get the job done. I learnt that it is OK to do this, it does not make me a machine, just a human being.

I move forward now with a better understanding of myself and a firm resolve. Fin Fighters will continue to push harder than ever for the protection of sharks, and although I will never look at Bruce the cardboard shark in quite the same way, I am glad because my resolve to save sharks will forever be the stronger for it.

By Lou Ruddell

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Innovative ways to protect sharks

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Innovative ways to protect sharks

Originally posted on The Black Fish Blog Page. Photo by Nico Jankowski.

Having just returned from an undercover investigation into shark fishing with The Black Fish in Morocco, Phil Root writes about his personal experiences. Photo by Nico Jankowski.

 

PHIL.

I step off the plane at Marrakech Airport and the heat hits me, it is 10am and I’ve been awake for 26 hours give or take the hour of neck cramping sleep I had on the plane. But I am excited and nervous, I still have to pick up a hire car and drive it to Casablanca. This it turns out was a little easier said than done, I find the car hire booth and wait for the sales rep to show up, after negotiations on model of car I am taken outside and driven to a garage in the centre of the city. The car is a larger model that we had expected, but should be good for transporting our gear around so I get in and try to orientate myself in a car that (being from England) is set out back to front, I set out nervously into the wrong (or so I was corrected by someone later, the right) side of the road.

It is midday in the middle of Marrakech, it is chaos as cars and mopeds come at me from both sides, I don’t have a map or a Sat Nav, I turn down a quieter side street and not being able to judge the cars size yet plough the right hand wing mirror into a parked van! Broken glass sprays into the car. I carry on regardless and hope I can find a garage to replace it later and eventually find my way onto the highway headed to Casa.

Arriving rather shaky, stressed and tired it’s a welcome feeling to meet by the co-ordinator smiling and reassuring me that the wing mirror incident was nothing to worry about, ‘it’ll only cost us 800 euros’ he chuckles. Meeting everyone at the hotel it quickly became clear that I was in the company of a very diverse group who were all equally creative and intuitive. Working on a campaign like this intuition and creativity is exactly what it needed as there is a lot of thinking on your feet, you have to be a self-sufficient and self-motivated individual as new information can be discovered and acted on at any moment.

For this campaign the main focus was to relay the Northern and Western coasts of Morocco, visiting ports along the way to assess what types of fishing were occurring and whether we saw any practices that warranted further investigation. For most of the volunteers this was just another week out of many travelling and working on conservation issues, for me it was the first and I felt excited if not a little out of my depth. This feeling of discomfort didn’t last long though as working with the group to solve problems and plan new strategies kept us busy and living out of a rucksack, constantly on the move made me feel strangely at home.

One way to document illegal fishing practises is by taking pictures. To capture the footage we needed we had to be inventive; even though we were playing the innocent tourist, in some places it was simply prohibit –for obvious reasons- to take photographs. This is where the small extreme sports cameras came into their element. One of the team had brought with her a bum bag (50p from the local charity shop), into which she cut a small hole at the front and inserted her camera so that only the lens stuck out, another quickly followed suit and bought a ‘Prada’ bag from the market for around 5 Euros. A few days later – I couldn’t stay behind - we could capture all the footage we needed without anyone noticing. Walking around the port however with a hidden camera definitely gets your pulse racing. To you it seems so obvious you’re just waiting for someone to start pointing and yelling at your bag “camera, camera”.

Moroccan cities usually house a market area called a ‘Medina’; a place usually very old and consisting of winding cramped streets and alleys selling an array of clothing, antiques, carpets, household wares and food. It was whilst wandering around one of the Medinas I started to notice a common thread to all of them, they sold football shirts in vast quantities. Most of the population it seemed were football mad and with the World Cup just starting everyone had the fever. After this I noticed most of the fishermen also wore their team colours; this gave me the idea to gain their trust by wearing their favourite football team shirt.

Strolling confidently into the next port I spot a bright yellow and red shirt. Emblazoned on the back is the name ‘MESSI’, fishermen and workers look at me and smile and I shake some of their hands. We are shown around the port by an enthusiastic fisherman and as we duck under some barbed wire fencing we are told “this is for the sharks”. I take a look around and notice some baiting hooks for a longline, I head over and smile, they regard my shirt and smile back. I ask if I can take a photo, ‘sure, no problem’. The fisherman is no fool, he knows we’re tourists and at the end of the tour asks for a little help towards his fishing gear and bait, we give him a little money to say thanks, knowing he has helped us out as much as we helped him.

Being on this campaign for three weeks and seeing everyone develop interesting and creative ways to the task at hand, I feel the campaign has been a success and an experience that I will take with me. I have made some new friends and look forward to the next time I may see them, sleep deprived in a cramped hotel room plotting new and ingenious ways to help protect sharks.

By Phil Root

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