Monday, January 26, 2015

Early Shark Conservation Has Been An Astounding Success

The first round of shark conservation is over. And it has been wildly successful.

Stop almost any American on the street and ask them about shark conservation and they will tell you about how sharks have their fins cut off alive and that their bodies are dumped at sea. This is called shark finning. Think about that. You are reading this blog and there’s a high likelihood that you probably know me and that I work on sharks, but did you already know this fact? I bet you did. I venture that nearly everyone in America already knows about shark finning. And they all know that it is bad.

So why do I still have a job if everyone in America already knows about my issue? Because shark conservation has moved beyond finning.

Shark finning public education has been one of the unheralded successes of environmental conservation outreach. There is more agreement in our country on shark finning than there is on fracking, the keystone pipeline, or climate change. And there is more awareness of sharks than there are of vaquitas or sage grouse. In fact, I bet you just had to Google vaquita.

Shark finning policy has been implemented in nearly every ocean and country around the world. President Clinton signed the United States shark finning ban in 2000. President Obama closed some loopholes in that ban in 2011. Last year New Zealand became the last non-Asian developed country to ban finning. I could run through the history of finning bans, but that’s not the point of this blog. There are currently no campaigns or efforts to ban finning anywhere in the world. This is because it is already banned.* Mission accomplished.

So why is it worth bringing up finning? I read somewhere that it takes about 10 years for scientific policy to catch up with scientific advice. The old scientific advice was to ban finning. After a successful conservation outreach campaign, nearly the entire world now knows that finning is bad and as a result it is nearly universally banned.

The scientific advice has now moved beyond finning. The paradigm shift on sharks likely started around 2006 with the publication of Shelley Clarke’s study estimating that up to 73 milllions sharks are killed each year (recently updated to 100 million sharks per year by Boris Worm et al). The new scientific advice is that many species of sharks (and rays!) are threatened with extinction and that they need protections. Sharks are worth more alive! Healthy reefs need sharks!

The advice of the conservation organization that employs me is to set catch limits for all commercially exploited shark species and to prohibit the landing of all shark species threatened with extinction. We also work with countries that have made the decision to end the fishing of all sharks in their waters. These shark sanctuaries are my particular focus. These are policies that will help restore shark populations to their previous abundance.

Yet finning still comes up all the time. There are constant calls to ‘end finning’ or ‘ban finning’ on Facebook and Twitter. Often times these calls to end finning are confused with calls to close the shark fin trade or end shark fishing, which are very different from finning. Shark finning determines how a shark is killed, not how many sharks are killed. Shark finning is an important, but lesser conservation policy. Shark fin trade bans and shark sanctuaries are heavy lifts.

It’s important for conservationists to use the right words when they are advocating. If we advocate for a shark sanctuary, but end up closing loopholes in the existing shark finning ban, there is less of a conservation benefit for sharks. The difference between finning, fishing, and shark fin trade bans are as different as going to the dentist and asking for a cleaning or a root canal. They both involve the health of your teeth, but they are very different things.

The next round of shark conservation will focus on setting catch limits, prohibitions, and creating shark sanctuaries, but we should also look back on the past successes of banning finning to drive us forward. The finning victories were hard fought and should be celebrated. Those policies were the stepping stones that have resulted in shark sanctuaries and threatened species listings on the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But as a conservation community we need to be careful we are not confusing the public and policy makers by using the wrong words.

*There are still countries that fin sharks and actively oppose efforts to close loopholes in existing shark finning agreements. However, I am not aware that there are any domestic campaigns seeking to ban finning in Japan, China, or Korea.

I think about sharks and I write about sharks and I talk about sharks every single day. My expertise leans towards policies supporting full protections for sharks and I’ve spent the last five years advocating for shark sanctuaries around the globe, but I’ve also worked on trade restrictions, endangered species prohibitions, shark finning, and dreamed of catch limits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Aziz Ansari Tweets 8 Mile

I wish I thought of this first. Amazing











Friday, January 16, 2015

University of Miami Shark Tagging

Teach a Chamorro to fish and he'll likely never work again.
Last year during the Science Online Oceans conference I had the opportunity to go shark tagging with the University of Miami RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program.  Last Thursday I had the chance to do it again with my shark conservation colleagues from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

I think about sharks and I write about sharks and I talk about sharks every single day, but I actually get to see very few of them.  Last year I only saw living sharks on a few days (two dives in Fiji, a few dives in Palau, and a snorkel in the British Virgin Islands).  So it's a really special day when I get to go out and see them!

Intrepid Team #1 was made up of the Caribbean Shark Sanctuary All-Stars and the big boss.
The RJD lab has a very strong conservation focus.  The day starts with a conservation briefing on the boat.  David Shiffman did the honors.

David made one really great point in his talk that stuck with me.  There was a government official on a Caribbean island about a year ago who told me that he was part of the ecosystem, and couldn't he regulate the ecosystem as a top predator?  I was speechless, and said I'd have to get back to him.  I've heard about similar sentiments by native American groups on the West Coast who claim that their cultures are evolved in perfect harmony with nature.

David's point was that humans target the healthy, strong individuals in a fish population while sharks mostly eat the weak and sick.  Humans and sharks are very different top predators.  The next time I see that government official, I will have a better answer for him.

From nose to tail, this lemon shark was 197 cm (78 inches). That's about 7 inches taller than me!
The lab allows volunteers to help with taking several measurements and to insert the tags.  They also take blood and tissue samples.  The data is analyzed and used in over 10 different research projects at RJD.  I was able to measure and tag this lemon shark.  Later in the day I was able to tag a nurse shark.

The volunteers also get to help out with the fishing.  The lab sets out a series of drum lines, which are weighted and baited to sit at the bottom.  The volunteers help set the bait with giant chunks of barracuda, then we get to pull in the lines by hand.  I was able to pull in 4 of the 35 drum lines we set, and there were sharks on three of them, including a 260 cm (102 inches) bull shark.  That's a foot taller than Yao Ming!

I think this boat is big enough, but damn that's a big bull shark!
Sadly, it's possible that we'll be the last generation to see some of these species.  The bulls and lemon sharks are assessed as near threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List, meaning that they are not considered threatened now, but are close or likely to qualify in the near future.  The nurse shark is assessed as data deficient, meaning there just isn't enough data to determine its conservation status.  Overall, 30% of sharks (74 species) assessed by IUCN are threatened with extinction.  Additionally, just over one-quarter (68 species) of the assessed species are near threatened.

The nurse shark has a very beautiful, unique hide
In fact, if you can name a shark species, there's a good chance that it's threatened or near threatened with extinction.  The mako and thresher sharks are threatened, as are great whites, basking, and whale sharks.  The species you're most likely to encounter on the reefs around Saipan, grey reefs, whitetip reefs, and blacktip reef sharks, are all near threatened.

It was extremely exciting and fulfilling to be able to participate in this day of science.  The results from this work will help inform the management of these important predators.  The team of conservationists can't function without the work from the team of scientists.  Also, it was a hell of a lot of fun!

As I write this I'm back in the cold grey of Washington, DC fighting the good fight from behind a computer screen.  The day with the lab was a great reminder of why my team does what we do every day.

Thank you, University of Miami!
And of course it is always great to see Twitter celebrity David Shiffman, who has turned social media outreach into an art form.  The lab also keeps a very active Facebook page and posted more than 50 photos from our day on the water.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Disney Marathon

I was in my assigned corral at 5:30 AM to watch the race start. The Black Eyed Peas pumped up the crowd and fireworks exploded overhead as the wheelchair athletes took off. Three minutes later this was repeated for the elite runners in runner corral A. And then B. And C. D followed. And so on. This went on for an hour. About 6:30 AM, my corral, corral P, the corral with all the first time marathoners and other assorted slow people, reached the starting line. The announcers led us all in rousing renditions of Don't Stop Believing and Let It Go, and then the starting gun went off for the 16th time and the race was on!

A video posted by Angelo Taotaotasi (@sharkdefenders) on


Kevin and Mom, my two superfans, didn't see me as I passed them in the dark. I tried to get their attention, but to them the mass of runners must have looked like the early hours of the zombie apocalypse (funny enough, miles down the road many of the runners looked like zombies).

That was the last I saw of them, god bless their patient souls. They had to leave the house with me at 3 AM and then spent the entire morning sleeping in the car. The only thing Kevin got out of the whole affair was a breakfast sandwich and a photo with me.


When I ran the Richmond half marathon in November I limped away with the goal of running a four hour marathon. My training runs over Christmas told me otherwise, so going into the race my goal was to simply finish. With that said, I thought 10 minute miles was doable. I should also note that until the marathon, my longest run ever was the half marathon, so I was literally going to have to run twice as far as I have ever run (more on my training ups and downs later).

People starting dropping out right away. I saw the first person walking about half a mile in. A mile in, it seemed like half the runners were actually walking. The single lane paved road we were on was not wide enough and those of us still running were forced to weave between the hoards of walkers. So this is why they put the runners in corrals!

I ran on the wet grass to the side of the road. And like that, suddenly I felt like I had to pee.

There were port-o-potties all along the course. The first set came right after the start. Unfortunately the line was 40 runners deep. I was on a mission to finish a marathon, so I wasn't about to stop. Down the road I noticed a lot of the male runners scurrying over to the woods. I had two choices: wait for a toilet and lose time or pee in front of thousands of runners. I decided to keep on running, but with every toilet and secluded tree I considered my options.

At about Mile 2, Captains Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa were the first Disney characters signing autographs and taking selfies along the course. Once upon a time that was my summer job, dressing up in hot costumes in the Magic Kingdom and taking pictures with overly aggressive Brazilians, but I digress. All along the race course characters lined up to take photos with the runners. Meeting them was not my top priority, but it was fun to see all of them.


The marathon course weaves itself across the entire Disney property and goes right through all of the parks, a few hotels, and the sports complex. The sun was just beginning to rise as I passed the 3 mile marker and entered the Magic Kingdom parking lot.


The first group of spectators since the start line greeted us at the Ticket and Transportation Center, which is where the monorail takes you from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom. Marathon fans always carry signs that reference pooping, farting, not wearing underwear, bad parades, and bananas in funny and amusing ways. Disney marathon signs take those classics and mix in some Disney, such as "Is this the 3:00 parade?" I wish I had taken some photos of the signs.

Mile 5, the length of my typical training runs, was right in front of the Contemporary Resort. The course took us through a side entrance of the Magic Kingdom and dumped us right onto Main Street U.S.A.


We took a hard right at the center of the park, ran through Tomorrowland, and up through Fantasyland. It was snowing (Disney snow) as we ran through Cinderella Castle, which has apparently been taken over by Princess Elsa as she was on one of the ramparts waving down to the runners. I stopped in front of the castle stage to have my photo taken, then jogged through Liberty Square, down to Frontier Land, and as I exited the gate where the day parade starts and the night parade ends, I remembered my other life making $6.10/hour as a Disney parade character in college.


I passed the six mile mark at just over an hour, so I was still making great time. Only 20 miles to go. We ran down past the Grand Floridian Hotel and back towards the parking lot and then through a service tunnel that opened onto the Walt Disney World Speedway and Kenny Loggins belting out Danger Zone. Right actor, wrong movie. I stopped for a selfie, and a friendly runner offered to take my photo.


The next couple of miles went through some service areas that I've never seen. On the map it looked like enchanted forest, but it was really water treatment facilities and greenhouses. Of note along this section was the gigantic invisible mental and physical wall at about the 10 mile mark. Up until this point the race had been a breeze. All of a sudden I noticed I was tired. And covered in sweat. And cramping. Thirsty. Also, tired.

Just past mile 12 was the entrance to Disney's Animal Kingdom, where I found a line of runners taking a short break to ride Expedition Everest. It's been over a decade since I've been to this park so I was a little disoriented. I think we came in through Africa, ran over to Asia, and then exited over by Dinoland USA. I kept trying to get a glimpse of the big tree, but somehow missed it.


I missed my split at the halfway point, but after 13 miles my time was 2:14:03, which is a solid 10:20 pace. It's worth pointing out that at this point I was now running my longest distance ever. The finish line was a mere 13.1 miles away -- only as far as I had ever run at one time in my entire life. I didn't understand at the time, but I know now that I was about to endure the most painful experience of my life -- and I've run for political office.

The marching band in the Animal Kingdom parking lot started playing the Avengers theme song as I ran towards them. I'd like to think it was for me.

It started raining at mile 16.

Agony set in at mile 18. Muscles in my legs started to twitch in ways I've never experienced. I tried lifting my knee to my chest and alternatively my heel to my butt, but instead of relief I got protest. Stretching may have made it worse.


I finally peed at mile 19. We ran right by a bathroom and there was no line. Ah, relief.

The rest of the race was a slog. There are days where my typical walking pace is faster than my running was at that point. The spectators helped, though. We entered the Disney Hollywood Studios in the 22nd mile and their encouragement, especially people calling out my name (it was printed on my bib), really helped.

The last two miles went through the Yacht and Beach Club and then entered Epcot behind England. I texted Mom as I crossed into France to let her know I was closing in on the finish. We circled the World Showcase (the long way) and then down through the center of Future World. Mile 26 was by the exit. An entire choir was there -- an entire choir! And then the finish line was right around the corner. It starting raining again as I plucked my way to the end

A video posted by Angelo Taotaotasi (@sharkdefenders) on

I was delirious and don't really remember the home stretch. I know I had my phone out and was filming a video, but everything else was a blur. I must have looked terrible, because the guy at the end asked me if I needed assistance. I asked for a wheelbarrow, and he countered with an offer for a stretcher. I said I'd be fine.

In the finish shoot runners received their medals, then a towel, banana, water, Powerade, commemorative photo shoot, and finally more bananas and a snack box. Mom and Kevin were nowhere to be found, so I staggered over to our prearranged meeting point. They were looking, but didn't see me finish. Kevin saw my video on Instagram and that's how they figured out I was done.

My official time was 5:06:04. Other than the triathlon I ran three years ago, this was my greatest feat of physical endurance ever. The five mile races I ran in college were nowhere near as painful.

My favorite parts of the race were running on the speedway and the baseball field, followed by the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I also like the idea of being able to say that I ran through all four parks -- RAN -- in a single day.

I probably could have done better, ran a little faster if I had trained longer, but considering where I started I look at this race as a stepping stone on my way to a new chapter in my life. If you remember, only five months ago I was that fat dude.

Then sometime in the middle of August I decided I'd start running again. At the time I couldn't run far or fast, but I would spend an hour on the treadmill even if my pace was a brisk walk. Slowly I was able to increase the speed and before long I started running outside. By the end of September I had lost 20 lbs and could run 9 minute miles.

That's when I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I'm always looking for an excuse to visit my family in Orlando, so I signed up for Disney.



In October I set about making some training goals. I figured if I could run 500 miles in the three months between signing up and race day that I would be able to make a solid showing. The training went so well in October that I signed up for a half marathon on November 15, too.

Long story short, I missed my training goals. I managed to run 300 of the planned 500 miles, most of which occurred in the early weeks of training. I've got plenty of excuses, including work trips to the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Samoa. It also took me longer to physically and mentally recover from the half, plus it was cold outside.

So while I fell short, 300 miles isn't that bad. It's more than 200 miles, and a hell of a lot more than the 0 miles I ran the year before. I think I also ran about 250 miles from August to September, and as a result I'm in much better shape than I was when I started training. Overall I've lost 30 lbs, and I've had to buy all new clothes. My underwear was the first thing that needed replacing. My fat ass stretched out the elastics and they literally fell off when I put them on.

I haven't identified my next race, but I think I want to run the Marine Corp Marathon in DC in November. That's a long ways off and I'll train a proper full 6 months and maybe even try some truly long distance runs on the weekends.

But first I'm going to wait for my blisters to heal.


And if you are interested, I've pasted my mile splits below. The two walls were at miles 10 and 18, and my mile splits mostly reflect that. I've also posted some photos to Facebook of the race. I'm probably going to buy the expensive professional photo package, too, and will post those photos later.

Mile Split Overall
1 9:58 9:58
2 9:27 19:26
3 9:46 29:13
4 9:52 39:05
5 9:43 48:48
6 13:12* 1:02:01
7 8:52 1:10:53
8 9:23 1:20:16
9 10:16 1:30:33
10 9:44 1:40:18
11 10:30 1:50:11
12 12:16** 2:03:04
13 10:58 2:14:03
14 10:30 2:24:33
15 10:57 2:35:31
16 10:57 2:46:28
17 11:09 2:57:38
18 11:21 3:08:59
19 14:12 3:23:12
20 13:12 3:36:25
21 15:03 3:51:29
22 15:01 4:06:30
23 15:26 4:21:57
24 14:42 4:36:39
25 14:34 4:51:13
26 12:37 5:03:51
Stretch 2:13 5:06:04

*Had to stand in line to take my photo in front of the castle.
**Waiting in line to take my photo with the pig.