Wednesday, March 04, 2015

I met a president today

President Tommy Remengesau Jr. and Shark Stanley
I had a fun day at work today.  There's a kid and his mom that I've been in contact with over the last few years who is really dedicated to advocating for ocean issues.  He's helped collect signatures and write letters for a couple of different initiatives, including my campaign to keep President Obama from overturning 11 state and territorial shark fin trade bans.

10 year old Nick contacted me again recently looking for somewhere to help, so I sent him some articles and information on Palau's effort to create a marine reserve throughout their entire EEZ.  Nick thought that was cool, so he wrote a letter.  But he didn't stop there; he recruited about 1000 friends and family members to sign on to his letter.

And it just so happens that the President of Palau was in New York this week, so after making a few phone calls, we arranged a meet and great.  I went as the official photographer.  Since this is my blog, the photo is of me!  If you want to read more about Nick's story, check out Shark Defenders.  I also posted photos to Facebook.

I'm not as big a deal as Shark Stanley
President Remengesau is one of my heroes and this is the first time I had my photo taken with him.  Palau has always pushed the envelope in terms of what conservation can accomplish and it has often been him doing the pushing.  I think that my leaders in the CNMI can learn a lot from him.  In fact, I'd like to see the CNMI and the federal government expand the protections of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.  Then our protected area and Palau's protected area can form a sister-park partnership.  A man can dream.

Funny story.  The president is such a humble, regular guy.  After our little presentation of the signatures by Nick to the president, the two ambassadors and the Cabinet members turned away from the president to talk among each other and to the other visitors.  The president ended up sitting in the middle of this big group of people -- except everyone's back was to him.  Nobody was paying him attention!  This was my big chance to talk to him.  I told him I was from Saipan and asked him about the recent bust of an illegal Taiwanese fishing vessel.  Turns out the vessel had 450 sharks on board.  Cool stuff!

Danielle, Nick, and me in front of the United Nations
Of course the whole day wouldn't have been possible without Nick and his mom.  We had lunch together at an Italian restaurant and I got to know them a little better.  Turns out Nick's not only caring and inspiring, but also funny.  And really shy.  But he did just fine talking to a president.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Shark Sanctuary Declared Across Micronesia

President Manny Mori signs the 2011 Micronesian Chief Executive Summit pledge to create a shark sanctuary.
The Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) passed legislation Feb. 4 to create a shark sanctuary in the country’s full exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which covers nearly 3 million square kilometers (1.1 million square miles) in the western Pacific Ocean. President Manny Mori transmitted and assigned the legislation as Public Law No. 18-108.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has worked the past four years with the Micronesia Conservation Trust to advocate for protection of sharks throughout Micronesia, welcomed the legislation. The measure, expected to be signed into law by President Manny Mori, prohibits the commercial fishing and trade of sharks and their parts.

"Our commitment to the Micronesia Challenge includes the protection of the top predators in our ocean," President Mori said. The Micronesia Challenge is a regional declaration of conservation goals to which the nation agreed in 2006. "Our traditional stories say that sharks protect the people. Now the people will protect the sharks."

The Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary is larger than the European Union.
On a broader scale, passage of the legislation marks the completion of the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary, which already includes the waters of Palau (more photos), the Marshall Islands (more photos), and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. In total, the area of protected shark habitat across the contiguous area is larger than the size of the European Union.

Creation of the FSM sanctuary follows a grassroots effort spearheaded by the Micronesia Conservation Trust, based in Pohnpei. Led by executive director Willy Kostka, the organization built a coalition of conservationists, traditional leaders, and students to advocate for protection of sharks throughout Micronesia.

"More than 8,000 students from across the region signed petitions to support these protections," Kostka said. "This is something the people wanted."

Passage of the FSM’s law creates the 10th shark sanctuary in the world and cements the country as a global leader in shark conservation. The sanctuary will protect iconic species such as silky and thresher sharks, which are considered near threatened and threatened, respectively, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Worldwide, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries. Nearly 30 percent of all known shark species assessed by scientists are threatened with extinction.


"The completion of the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary is truly a landmark action because it joins together a massive swath of the western Pacific as a trans-boundary sanctuary for all the sharks that migrate across this huge ocean region," said Angelo Villagomez, a shark expert with Pew. "We look forward to working with our partners in the FSM to make certain that the implementing regulations ensure strong protections for sharks."

Sharks play an important role in maintaining the health of the entire ocean. As top predators, they regulate the variety and abundance of other species in the food web, including commercially important fish. Sharks help maintain healthy marine habitats, such as coral reefs.

They also are among the foremost species that scuba divers want to see, and their presence helps attracts tourists to these islands. By establishing a shark sanctuary, the FSM is acting to strengthen the marine ecosystem, including coral reefs, and helping to secure industries, such as tourism, that depend on a healthy ocean.

The Federated States of Micronesia consists of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei (more photos),and Kosrae. Press release from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Creating Your Conservation Dream Team


Last week my employer hosted a workshop dubbed "Shark School" in our Washington, DC offices.  We invited about a dozen of our partners to participate, along with all of our shark team staff.  Over the course of two days we had many discussions and three break out sessions.  The first session was a chance to discuss lessons learned over five years of shark conservation.  One of the conservation professionals in my group described a model of conservation leadership that I had never thought of or heard of before.  I found it compelling and useful.  I'm going to attempt to explain it here for my readers (both of you).

I'm in the business of creating agreements to protect sharks.  My focus is on protecting all sharks in a particular jurisdiction.  In 5 years we've passed 23 policies in 3 oceans to ban finning, restrict the shark fin trade, or close down commercial shark fisheries.  Each of these policies was enacted through either an executive decree, regulation amendment or the legislative process.

In each of these cases passing the new policy required a Champion.  The Champion is someone who has the power the enact a policy change, supports a policy change, and works to change the policy.  In the legislature this is usually a lawmaker who has to convince all of his or her colleagues to vote for a shark conservation law.  It can be a minister who has to convince a president.  It can even be a president who doesn't have to convince anyone.

The Champion introduces the policy change in the relevant forum and guides it through the proper mechanisms to ensure passage.  This is the person who gets much of the glory when it is all over.  They are the ones who give the media interviews.  In the Marshall Islands this was Tony deBrum.  Diego Benavente was the Champion on Saipan.  BJ Cruz and Rory Respicio were the Guam Champions.

I tend to think only in terms of needing a Champion, but during my breakout session someone suggested that there are two other important roles on a conservation team.  The Champion is only one player.  You also need an Ambassador and a Patron.

The Ambassador is an influential person who serves as the public face for the public support of your policy change initiative.  There are famous Ambassadors like Sylvia Earle and Leonardo Dicaprio, but the Ambassador can also be someone with local influence.

When I managed the campaign to create the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in 2008, I relied on several Ambassadors like Ike Cabrera, Chailang Palacios, and Dave Sablan.  I was a greasy haired 29-year old punk who talked too much.  They provided the gravitas I lacked to bring skeptical community members on board.  Ike in particular helped build an overwhelming amount of grassroots support to overcome the objections of the handful of citizens with links to the Hawaiian longline industry.

The Patron plays a role similar to the Ambassador, but rather than be out in front, stays in the background using their influence to build support with key stakeholders.  In 2008, I asked my father's godfather, Manny Villagomez, to help me.  His support brought on board many others.

Previously I would have described the Ambassador and the Patron as a Champion, but I see now that there are subtle differences.  So it's not groundbreaking stuff, but when I build new conservation teams I'm going to keep these distinctions in mind.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ground-breaking science could help manage sharks

Judith taking waters samples in the blue water north of Bimini.
Can we use environmental DNA to investigate shark populations?
Judith Bakker, a Ph.D. candidate at Salford University in Manchester, England, was conducting shark research in The Bahamas last week with support from the Bimini Biological Field Station, often referred to as the Sharklab.


Bakker is developing methods for scientists to be able to collect environmental DNA, or eDNA, and to test it for the presence of shark species.

The study is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Washington, D.C.-based non-government organization that worked closely with The Bahamas National Trust and the government to create a shark sanctuary in Bahamian waters in 2011.

eDNA is made up of DNA shed by animals and anything else that lives in the sea, this DNA can be either free-floating or bound to particulate matter found in the water column.

“We should be able to detect tiny bits of shark eDNA that have been released from their feces, urine, blood, semen, mucus or skin cells or other tissues,” explains Bakker.

The scientist collects several gallons of water from different types of habitats including mangroves, deep water, the Gulf Stream, and at popular shark dive sites around Bimini.

Yes, my eyes detect the sharks. But can we get the eDNA?
She then takes the water samples back to the lab where she runs them through two filters using a vacuum pump. Filters with two different pore sizes are used, which capture anything in the water larger than 0.22 and 0.45 micrometers, respectively. This is about the size needed to capture the eDNA. Once she collects the eDNA on the filter, she extracts the DNA, which is then sequenced to test for the presence of sharks. Like all living creatures, sharks have DNA codes unique to every species.


“Bimini is a very sharky place,” says Bakker. “If these techniques are going to work, this is the place where we are most likely to get positive results. We know that there are sharks in the water here, we just have to prove that we can detect their DNA in the water.”

“The Bahamas has taken many steps to protect sharks, and this is one of the main reasons I chose to conduct my research here,” said Bakker. “I hope that other countries do the same and create shark sanctuaries before we lose some species forever.”


Angelo Villagomez, manager of Pew’s global shark conservation campaign, accompanied Bakker during her data collection.

“This is ground-breaking work,” said Villagomez. “As this technology develops, two or three decades down the road, we could have the ability to test for the presence of shark species just by using a water sample. We might even be able to test for density. This could have implications for conservation and management of sharks and other species.”

Bakker has previously collected eDNA samples in Belize and Jamaica. After leaving Bimini she went to Turks & Caicos Islands to collect samples. She is returning to Manchester in March to test her samples and will have her preliminary results during the spring.

Villagomez and Bakker are hopeful that she will show that the technology is feasible.

“It’s just a hypothesis, of course,” said Villagomez. “But Judith has already successfully collected samples and had positive test results from shark eDNA extraction conducted at an aquarium, so it looks encouraging that she will prove it true.”