The BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit came to a close this past Sunday, leaving behind a terrific week of conversation seminars, ocean films, and meetings with some of the ocean's leading defenders in the film, scientific, and political arenas. The film festival's big prize winner was Bag It, by Reel Thing, a personal journey of one man to learn and unravel the issues surrounding the use and impact of plastics on the environment.
On Saturday, I moderated a discussion panel, New Strategies in Shark Conservation, at the Monterey Conference Center's Steinbeck Forum. I was honored to have four panelists who have been deeply involved in shark conservation, and their particular perspectives were very insightful as to what the future holds for shark conservation.
Shark Conservation Panelists
Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid: Peter's work with WildAid has been focused on the illegal trade in endangered species and he typically directs his battles toward the international frontlines. In particular, he sees great potential in bringing the issue directly to the people of China. This is a nation that not only has a sizable population - one that he says is not fully aware of the implications of the commercial shark market - but is also a nation that can have influence on many other Asian nations. WildAid continues with its campaign of public awareness to Asian-speaking populations with the wide use of Asian celebrity endorsements.
Stefanie Brendl, involved in Hawaii's recent shark fin prohibition legislation: Stefanie, as owner of Hawaii Shark Encounters, has jumped feet-first into the legislative arena, seeing what can be realistically accomplished through the halls of regional, state, and national politics. She is currently working with WildAid, which is based in San Francisco, to determine ways in which possible legislation can be initiated in California. The Hawaiian anti-fin bill can be an inspiration but, for California and anywhere else, a new political initiative means a minefield of new players, political influences, and constituencies. One of Stefanie's observations was that many of the emotional issues that fuel the shark conservation movement on a personal level have no resonance in the world of politics - it's a matter of economics and political logic supported by hard, undeniable data.
Laleh Mohajerani, director of Iemanya Oceanica: Mexico brings together many components involved in the shark conservation issue - governmental regulations and the viability of enforcement based on available resources; public awareness to a population whose focus can be on more fundamental needs of food and survival; and a local fishing population that has not fully been afforded economic alternatives to the overfishing of valuable marine resources. Laleh's organization is directing campaigns to bring not only more awareness to the Mexican public in general but to also show local fishing communities ways to support themselves without decimating the populations of sharks, turtles, and many other ocean species. These types of directives can be applied to other second and third world nations.
Dr. Greg Stone, senior scientist of the oceans, Conservation International: Greg brings a wealth of both scientific and international diplomacy experience and much of what Conservation International has been involved in has included scientific research that provides the hard, indisputable data for the policy and decision makers. The organization also works by bringing together the interests of multiple nations to form large-scale policy and regulatory agreements, such as the Phoenix Islands marine reserve and the Pacific Oceanscape - examples of large geographic zones where marine resources are protected, monitored, and enforced. Greg emphasized the importance of having the accurate facts and data to define the important role that sharks play in maintaining a healthy marine environment and that the larger organizations, - like Conservation International, WildAid, and the Humane Society - are perhaps best equipped to accomplish these critical, large-scale international goals that can produce quantifiable results.
Shark Conservation Maturing
The shark conservation movement is at a critical stage of maturation. It has been fueled by emotional hot buttons like the cruel hunting methods of shark finning and the seeming waste of a luxury item like shark fin soup or shark cartilage. But there was much agreement within the panel that, as important as these components are to the debate, to see quantifiable change in policy we must deal with the harsh realities of politics and economics. There are fundamental cultural differences between peoples that may never be resolved regarding attitudes towards sharks or seafood in general. And to challenge or resolve those cultural roadblocks may take too long or be too divisive. Instead, developing fact-based platforms that speak to the specific needs of nations will more and more become the model for future progress.
So where does this leave us as individual advocates and supporters? The panel still felt there was a strong need for the individual efforts, the grass-root movements. Concern was raised though that with so many "save the shark" groups today, each fighting for a measure of recognition and funding, the movement can become dissipated. Peter Knights noted that the individual choices we make regarding sharks and seafood in restaurants and supermarkets, what we tell our friends and acquaintances about the shark problem (calmly and matter-of-factly), all still can have a tremendous impact. Greg Stone commented that we all need to make careful, informed decisions about what organizations we support financially, learning what groups can show real and tangible accomplishments.
Stefanie Brendl noted that, while many shark supporters are inundated with one petition after another from a variety of groups and causes and may question whether so many of these are nothing more than feel-good exercises to rally the troops, the concept of the petition (or personal email, hand-written letter, or phone call) can be effective if properly directed to the right policy or decision-maker. And that is something that can often be best accomplished by yourself rather than relying on another group to be your water boy.
And, as a filmmaker, I reiterated my position that sharks need to be represented accurately and without over-sensationalism or, as sometimes happens with ardent shark supporters, misrepresentations of sharks as cuddly pets. Shark conservation is a tough enough proposition for many in the general public (or in the halls of congress) to appreciate; no need to come across as shark-hugging lunatics to those we are trying to persuade.
In the future, we may see a combining of efforts that will bring many shark advocate organizations to align themselves with larger organizations to consolidate power. This will be an important step in securing sensible political and economic measures on both a national and international level. And all of us will need to take greater personal responsibility for our involvement - mindful of the impact of rational and reasoned arguments in a complicated multi-cultural world, and cautious as to who we support and why.