Monday, August 25, 2014

Pacific Leaders Protecting the Ocean

One of the most exciting developments in conservation recently has been the drive to create national park-scale marine protected areas.  The designation of super-mpas was an issue I worked on 6 years ago when I led the grassroots campaign to build public support for the creation of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.  It is exciting to see the movement spreading across the Pacific today.

If you want to know about these protections, there are many hard working, dedicated people helping to put these protections in place.  Those people can offer insight to the global movement to protect the ocean.

Palau is currently working on a plan to close down 80% of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to commercial fishing.  President Tommy Remengesau has promoted his plan all across the globe, including on one of the world's biggest stages, the United Nation's General Assembly.  The plan was a major focus at last month's Pacific Islands Forum.  Nearly everyone who reads this blog knows someone from Palau.  If you want to know more about Palau's plans to protect fish stocks for local people, you should ask them about it.

The Cook Islands also made a big deal at the Pacific Islands Forum of their plan to create a marine park over more than half their EEZ, which is four times as large as California.  The plan was first announced in 2012 and should be in place by next year.  My friend Jess Cramp, international shark hero, is one of the many people working on the plan.

Kiribati has been working for 10 years to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. According to the Star Advertiser, Kiribati President Anote Tong, "hopes the shuttering of those 157,000 square miles to industrial fishing practices can be seen as a key early step to creating more widespread conservation zones across the Pacific -- a way to help the ocean's dwindling fishing stocks recover for sustainable, future use."  If you have questions about what is taking place in Kiribati, you can ask my good friend Laurie Peterka about it.  She's there as I write this working with the government to protect sharks.

And why does this matter?  The creation of super-mpas is being discussed in the pages and comments section of the Marianas Variety today.  This particular marine protected area is thousands of miles away from Saipan and does not affect anyone living there; therefore I will reserve comment lest my words on this blog be confused as representing my employer.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Famous on Shark Week

No, I've never actually been on Shark Week. And yes, there are other shark conservationists who get more print than me. But I'm having my own 15 minutes of fame during Shark Week this year.

I talked to NPR earlier in the week about about a restaurant serving mako tacos. Nearly every shark that interacts with fishing gear is threatened or near threatened with extinction, including makos which are assessed as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. I thought I'd be clever and compare the conservation status of makos to other species. I could have used lions, cheetahs, or elephants, but went with polar bears. "But you wouldn't want to eat polar bear tacos," he says.

I have a second quote later in the story:
Catches of most other shark species are at all-time lows, according to Villagomez. He says this is not because of decreasing demand but decreasing shark numbers. "We've hit 'peak shark,' " he jokes.
The first quote was later picked up in stories in Jezebel and DailyDot. 13 quoted words total. Fame rules.

I'm also quoted in a story from Smithsonian Magazine today:
"Sharks are worth more alive," says Angelo Villagomez, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts' global shark conservation campaign. "Sharks are fished because they have value in fisheries, but a lot of tropical island locations, especially holiday destinations, have found that they can get a lot more out of their resources with dive tourism."

"Not only should [tourists] be conscious that the divers are operating under best practices, but they should think about spending their money in countries that are taking the time to protect their sharks and other animals," Villagomez says. Choose to visit a place with a dedicated shark sanctuary, which means that the country has taken policy measures to ensure shark conservation. Villagomez suggests taking a trip to Palau, which became the first place in the world to create a shark sanctuary in 2009. Tourists who swim with sharks within the sanctuary pay a number of taxes, which are funneled back into conservation and the local economy. The high fees also help control the number of tourists. "It’s not perfect, but they’re taking steps in the right direction," Villagomez says.

I bet you didn't know that I moonlighted as a Palau tour promoter, did you?  And although it has nothing to do with Shark Week, Ambrose Bennett mentioned me in one of his rants this week.  Now that's real fame!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Shark Week Gold

Holy moly, Shark Week puts a lot of social media attention on sharks.  Last night I couldn't sleep due to my jetlag, so I scheduled a Shark Week tweet on Shark Defenders every hour using Hootsuite.  I tagged each post with #SharkWeek.  Then I tweeted during the 4 PM showing of Shark Fight and the 8 PM showing of Air Jaws: Fins of Fury.  Shark of Darkness: Submarine Returns was so terrible I stopped watching after about 10 minutes.  I tweeted some snarky things about the show, and that's when things started to take off.

Maybe it was because David Shiffman was on an airplane and there was a giant gaping hole in the Shark tweeterverse, but my Twitter feed exploded.
If this keeps up, Shark Defenders will surpass 10,000 followers by the end of the week, thus making me 0.02% as popular as Justin Bieber.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Famous in Hong Kong and Majuro

In December 2012, I (representing my employer) went to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Manila, Philippines to advocate for the banning of the practice wherein purse seine vessels intentionally set their nets around whale sharks, a species assessed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.  In December 2013, I (again representing my employer) went to the WCPFC meeting in Cairns, Australia to advocate for the protection of silky sharks, a species assessed as overfished with overfishing still occurring.  At both meetings, all of the members of the fisheries commission agreed to implement the protections for both species.  Hurray!

Why do I bring this up now?  Because a few weeks ago an American vessel called the Sea Bounty was caught in the Marshall Islands setting its nets around a whale shark and fishing for silky sharks.  These actions violate the rules of the WCPFC, but also the rules of the Marshall Islands Shark Sanctuary, which bans all commercial fishing of sharks in their Exclusive Economic Zone.  The Marshall Islands Journal quoted me in a story this week saying some very nice things about the enforcement taking place there.
"When the shark laws are enforced, it serves as a deterrent for future violations," said Angelo Villagomez, a shark expert with the Washington, DC-based Pew Foundation. "The Marshall Islands fines are particularly significant; these fines can be used to fund further enforcement efforts. It also shows the world that port enforcement works, and that shark sanctuaries work."

The vessel was reported both catching silky sharks and doing a tuna set on a whale shark, which is prohibited by RMI law. The huge size of whale sharks attracts tuna, making them a target for tuna boats.

"Whale sharks swimming on the surface act as a living fish aggregation device, or FAD," said Villagomez. "There will often be schools of tuna swimming below the big shark. Whale sharks are assessed as 'vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Endangered Species."

Silky sharks have been singled out for protection because of heavy fishing. "Silky sharks are a major secondary catch in the western and central Pacific, but they have been fished so heavily the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) says they are overfished and that overfishing is still occurring," said Vilagomez.

Because of concern of overfishing, silky sharks were recently placed on a protected list by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and fishing vessels are supposed to return them to the ocean alive if they are caught. "It is worrisome if this measure is not being followed by industry, but it is encouraging that enforcement is catching the violations," said Villagomez. "If industry doesn't implement the already agreed to protections, they can expect more stringent, global protections down the road."

Villagomez praised RMI for its vigilance in enforcing its shark sanctuary. "The Marshall Islands continues to be the model shark sanctuary in terms of its legal framework and enforcement," he said. "They are a global leader on the issue of shark conservation, and I hope that other countries continue to follow their lead."
I was also quoted in story in the South China Morning Post (which was then picked up by a food blog) about the decline in the demand for shark fin in China.  The story focused on a new WildAid report showing drastic declines due to their outreach campaign over the last several years.
However, Angelo Villagomez, a shark specialist with US-based conservation group Pew Charitable Trusts, put the decline in consumption down to Xi Jinping's anti corruption campaign, which has forced a decline in lavish banquets.

"It's not to do with conservation. It's related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu," Villagomez told Agence France-Presse in September last year, commenting on the impact of China's graft crackdown on shark fin consumption.
Man, I sound like a real dick contradicting their conservation claims.  I mean, I don't even work on shark conservation in China!  What do I know?  Thing is, my quote was taken from a story about the Marshall Islands written last year.  The WildAid report only came out this week.  The context of my quote was more like this:
However, he said the decline in shark fin demand (in China) over the past year was not directly linked to increasing shark protection by Pacific islands governments (emphasis mine). Instead, it was related to the Chinese leadership’s crackdown on graft and opposition to extravagance.

“It’s not to do with conservation. It’s related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu,” Villagomez said.
It is totally not cool to use a quote from last year about a completely different issue and apply it to a study that just came out.  That's sloppy reporting at best.

The truth is, there is no singular approach in shark conservation.  We can never say that this one thing or this one person resulted in a change.  Societal change takes the work of many.  Global change even more so.  We should not argue over whether the main driver of the ban was conservation or corruption, because it was probably both.  In the end, if the government ban on shark fin soup leads to fewer sharks being killed, that is a good thing.  There is plenty of thanks and credit to go around, and probably several reasons why it happened.

I, however, can claim that I had nothing to do with the reduction of the demand for shark fin soup in China.  My job is to restrict the supply of shark fins getting there in the first place.