A victory for sharks
Riley Elliott is a shark biologist, ocean activist and author (Shark Man, 2014) from New Zealand. His work has contributed to increased protections for blue sharks and, most recently, mako sharks. He passionately believes in the power of using stimulating visuals – broadcast or print – to better communicate science.
If you missed the last edition of Oceanographic Magazine, you missed the context to what was one of the greatest victories for sharks in recent times. ‘The billion dollar shark’ feature in the last issue told the story of the mako shark, the global issues it faces and the scientific reasons it deserved greater protection at 2019’s Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – protection, I am pleased to say, the species received.
The victory was far from easy, however. The vote passed with 72% of members voting in favour of the motion, but faced significant opposition from of some of the world’s larger, more powerful nations – opposition that many feared might prevent smaller nations from backing greater protection through the Appendix II listing.
In each of the ‘vote no’ cases, nation states were simply putting capitalism before conservation. Even in the face of irrefutable scientific evidence that showed the extreme and unsustainable decline of mako shark populations, the value of those sharks left remained all the mattered to some. Shame on them.
It is my opinion that what likely galvanised many of those smaller nations to stand up and be counted was the wave of public energy and support for the species prior to CITES sitting and debating the matter. The recipe for that wave of support is one I often utilise when hoping to generate public interest in the defence of sharks: stimulating imagery backed up with science. It is a potent combination, particularly with the modern media we now have at our disposal to disseminate information. Serious biological and environmental issues can been communicated in an impactful and meaningful way like never before.
In this instance organisations such as Blue Sphere Foundation, SeaLegacy, Lonely Whale, Nakawe, Project AWARE and countless other conservation entities around the world rallied global support for the mako with petitions, stories and social media posts all supported by striking imagery and important, hard-hitting facts. A huge part of that was Blue Shpere Foundation founder and SeaLegacy Collective member Shawn Heinrichs’ beautiful mako images – images shot with me, a shark biologist, in my native New Zealand, that showed the magnificence of makos. Photography and science in action.
Richard Branson personally engaged the Canadian ministers at CITES, imploring them to support the Appendix II listing. Leonardo DiCaprio preached for protection. Millions of people around the world, inspired by the people or organisations they respect, made their voices heard. A steady and constant stream of support for mako sharks unfolded online, around the world.
Branson was heard. DiCaprio was heard. We were heard. YOU were heard. The 72% vote in favour of the listing (102 to 40) was the largest margin of victory at a CITES meeting since 1973. This was a comprehensive motion of support and proof, I believe, of the power of the public – a public who, particularly in the face of the big business stranglehold over the climate, too often feel as if what they feel and think doesn’t matter and won’t – can’t – make a difference. Evidence of the effect of the masses was the decision by Canadian ministers to change their vote. Initially set to vote the motion down, they performed a public – and highly commendable – U-turn to support the listing. Bravo. Sadly, other global leaders such as Japan, the US and my own country New Zealand stood in opposition.
To those 102 representatives who voted to protect the mako – or, indeed, the total of 18 sharks and ray species that were afforded greater protection – thank you. To the global community of ocean defenders who made sure your voices were heard in the run up to the vote, thank you too.
We did it.
This column appears in ISSUE 9: Dancing with orcas of Oceanographic Magazine
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