Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sustainable Shark Diving in Saipan

The kids look somewhat interested, don't they?  Check out my awesome slide in the background.
I'm in Saipan this week to talk to speak at the Marianas Tourism Education Council Tourism Summit about shark diving.  I shared the stage with Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr., my cousin former Lt. Governor Diego Benavente, my old soccer teammate Dr. Peter Houk, and future island leader Mary Grace Tiglao.

I need to work on my character voices.
After my talk I had the chance to do one of my favorite activities -- reading The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends to a group of kids.  Actually, I read it to 5 groups of kids.  Something happened where one of the presenters for the breakout groups didn't show up or had to leave early, so I jumped in with a moment's notice and invented a lesson plan on the spot.  I gave the kids two minutes to name as many species of sharks as they can and then I read the book and told them to visit the Shark Stanley website.  Boom! Conservation achieved!  Strangely, the older students from Saipan Southern High School seemed to like being read to the most..

I also met new Saipan Tribune reporter (well, new to me) Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon at the summit and we had a good chat about my talk.  She did a great job of writing of the story.  Here it is, reposted without permission from the Saipan Tribune:
Sustainable shark diving industry is possible for Saipan
Sharks, often misunderstood and stigmatized creatures, and their economic values were brought to light at the Marianas Tourism Education Council Tourism Summit held at the Pacific Islands Club Saipan yesterday.

Angelo O’Connor Villagomez, an officer of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project, said that about 100 million sharks are killed every year.

“We fish them faster than they can reproduce,” Villagomez said, “As result of this, half of all sharks are threatened or are near-threatened.”

Villagomez, who has helped the passage of more than two dozen shark conservation laws in small Pacific and Caribbean island states, shared to the hundreds of students in attendance how sharks can be protected and how they can be part of a more sustainable industry.

He also offered materials for guidelines and best practices in sustainable shark diving such as the ones featured in www.sustainablesharkdiving.com.

Villagomez said that Saipan has an opportunity to protect its sharks and have a great shark industry.

“I have been swimming in these waters for 30 years but actually diving for 10 and we’ve got some cool species,” Villagomez said in an interview after his presentation.

He added that Saipan has whale sharks, tiger sharks, and reef sharks such as the gray, black-tip, and white-tip. There could also be sharks outside the reef such as the silky and blue sharks.

Shark diving on Saipan, he said, could be an option.

“With a little bit of investment, a little bit of work probably could develop a shark dive,” Villagomez said, “It’s something different to do. It’s a growing part of the industry and it’s definitely a niche part of the industry.”

Not only would tourism benefit from this kind of activity, it could also help fishermen.

“If the CNMI were to look into feeding sharks, it’s something that the fishermen could benefit from since they are the ones who will catch the fish,” Villagomez said, “There could be a really great partnership where the fishermen could actually benefit from the protection of sharks.”

However, there should be safeguards established also.

“It’s something that the government should really look into. When you’re playing with big animals, big predators, things could go wrong so the government should look into the best regulations to make sure that it is safe and sustainable,” Vilagomez said.

For Villagomez, sharks are the coolest animals and they are, most of the time, what divers want to see in their natural habitat.

“We think that they’re scary,” Villagomez said, “They are actually not really scary. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

“Show me somebody who’s afraid of sharks and I’ll show you somebody who has not been in the water with them,” he added.

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