Sunday, June 29, 2008

What great white sharks & monarch butterflies have in common

On 05/20/07, RTSea wrote: This past week, I was watching a segment of the Today show, a U.S. morning news program, that examined the famous annual migration of the Monarch butterfly from the eastern U.S. to one particular spot in Mexico: millions of butterflies swarming together deep in a Mexican forest. An amazing sight but one that is also in jeopardy due to illegal tree-cutting that is shrinking their available habitat.

Oddly enough, these same insects reminded me of the great white sharks that inhabit Isla Guadalupe off the Baja coast during the months of September through December. There are actually strong similarities between these magnificent sharks and the Monarch butterfly. The great white sharks return to Isla Guadalupe after a long migration, one that has been suspected to include stops at deep seamounts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After their long journey, they come to feed on the island"s tuna and seal populations. But the similarity goes beyond their remarkable migrations.

The other tragic similarity is that both of these creatures are endangered: the butterfly from a potential loss of habitat, and the shark from hunting for fins, jaws, and teeth. At the present time, there are laws on the books to protect both, but the Mexican government is painfully short of resources to enforce the laws it has enacted. Several years ago, the Mexican government declared Isla Guadalupe a "protected biosphere" and last year laws were put in place to outlaw the taking of great white sharks, in addition to several other elasmobranchs, in and around the island. All well and good, however, Isla Guadalupe is a rugged and remote island 150 miles west of the Baja coast and the Mexican authorities are in no position to station a vessel or personnel there during the months the sharks appear. Rather than let it die as an empty promise, this is where the citizen activist can play a role.

Eco-tourism companies, like, have been working closely with scientific researchers from Mexico and the U.S. who have been studying the population and behaviors of the sharks at Isla Guadalupe. While providing people the opportunity to see great white sharks from the safety of protective cages, these operations have also been providing research teams with logistical support and supplies. It is a unique working relationship that has proven itself successful for several years. Self-serving, you say? Perhaps to a degree, but in that respect, it serves as a perfect example of how business and science can work together towards a common environmental goal. And as a filmmaker, I have worked closely with several of these organizations and can attest to their genuine concern for the fate of the great white shark - not as a potential cash cow, but as another endangered species that we cannot afford to lose.

In lieu of a lack of resources to enforce the laws protecting the great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe, the Mexican government needs to tightly restrict the number of permits that allow boats at the island: if you can qualify and quantify your willingness to, both, support scientific research and act as ad hoc enforcement, then you can be considered for a permit. In essence, when there are not enough sheriffs, then form a posse. Not all shark diving operations are so environmentally committed, so only the dedicated companies would qualify. But this would be better than an all out ban, as there would then be no one watching out for the sharks.

Mexico is now beginning to send patrols deep into the forest jungle to ward off tree poachers (it amazes me that these poachers are able to get away with it; we are talking big trees here). If the Mexican government is unable to provide the naval vessels or crew to regularly patrol the waters around Isla Guadalupe, then a small number of dedicated eco-tourism vessels would seem a viable alternative - a way to give well-intended legislation a little teeth, pardon the pun.

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