On February 20, 2014 California Assembly Member Paul Fong introduced legislation (AB 2019) that would outlaw the use of drift gillnet (DGN) gear in California, which is mainly used to target swordfish and sharks. Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sponsored AB 2019 while claiming that CA gillnets are “curtains of death.” On March 3, 2014 the bill was referred to the California State Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee (WPWC) who voted down AB 2019 at the first public committee hearing on April 29, 2014.
The WPWC vote to kill AB 2019 at it’s first legislative hurdle came to the surprise of both the proponents and the opponents of AB 2019, mainly because 3 of the WPWC members were also co-authors of the bill including the chair of the Committee, Assembly Member Anthony Rendon. We were all well aware that the chances of this bill not making it through this Committee were slim to none, but it was important that we fought it anyway to show our strong opposition from the start.
The hearing got off to a late start around 3:00p.m. and the room needed to be cleared by 3:30, so things happened quickly. Things started with the bills lead author, Assembly Member Paul Fong giving a brief overview of the bill. That was followed by 2-minute testimony given by key individual proponents of the bill. The main proponents Geoff Shester from Oceana, Jennifer Fearing from HSUS and Terri Shore from the Turtle Island Restoration Network each spoke for about 2 minutes each. After that, the additional individual proponents of the bill walked up to the microphone and stated their name, occupation and position on the bill.
Next there was testimony from the bills main opponents, John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research Collective and DGN fisherman Arthur Lorton. After that, the additional individual opponents of the bill walked up to the microphone and stated their name, occupation and position on the bill.
15 Assembly Members represent the WPWC (5 Republicans and 10 Democrats) and 8 yes votes are needed in order for a bill to make it past the Committee. We knew that all 5 of the Republican WPWC members were opposed to the bill, and that at least 3 of the Democrats (co-authors) supported the bill. That left the decision to the 7 remaining Democrats, most if not all of which were expected to vote yes in our opinion. In the end, 6 WPWC members voted yes on AB 2019, 7 voted no and 2 members did not vote at all (same as a no). So why was this bill so short-lived?
AB 2019 was killed because the bill was flawed from the start. The sponsors of the bill relied heavily on misinformation about the CA DGN fishery. They also shared graphic images with the mass public as well as Assembly Members the day of the hearing of dead marine mammals that had been caught in DGN gear over 10 years ago, and even some images taken from foreign fishing vessels while claiming it was a CA DGN vessel. Nobody enjoys looking at graphic images of dead animals, but thankfully the majority of the WPWC was able to let the truth triumph their emotions and were able to make a level-headed decision based on the facts. So who shared the facts about the CA DGN fishery with the WPWC members and influenced them to vote no on AB 2019?
It took an army. In all, 13 of us made the trip up to Sacramento to lobby Assembly Members and/or to give testimony at the WPWC hearing, which included 10 fishermen (1 of which is a lawyer), 1 marine mammal biologist, 1 lobbyist to coach us, and myself. We divided and conquered as we split up and met personally with Assembly Members and staffers the day before the hearing, with a special focus on the 7 undecided Democrats. I was blown away by how available the staffers were to speak with us and how receptive they were to the information we were sharing. I actually believe they really cared.
But it took more than an army of 13 to defeat this bill. We also created a Facebook page and provided the phone numbers to key Assembly Members asking our followers to light up the phone lines the day before the hearing. Our Facebook page has over 500 followers and at least 33 of them made phone calls that day, maybe more. In addition, creating this Facebook page put us in contact with DGN fishermen that we had no contact with before and a couple of them were able to make it up to Sacramento for the hearing. I have no doubt in my mind that our Facebook page was a critical piece of the puzzle that led to our success in killing AB 2019.
Bycatch was the main hot-button issue that was brought up by the Assembly Members and staffers. It seemed as though there was some confusion about what bycatch actually is. By definition, bycatch as stated in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is:
“Fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program.”
In other words, just because a fish is caught that is not targeted does not make it bycatch, as long as it is landed and sold. It’s also important to remember that “discards” does not necessarily mean the fish was released dead.
Oceana falsely claimed that 63% of the total CA DGN catch are discarded at sea, dead. The truth is that 56% of the DGN catch is landed and sold to local markets. The remaining 44% is discarded at sea, but studies show that 77% of this bycatch is released alive. Another point that resonated with Assembly Members was the fact that replacing responsibly caught local swordfish with imported swordfish from less-responsible foreign fisheries would only create a transfer effect that would increase the total amount of bycatch worldwide.
Economics also played a role in influencing the Assembly Members. We shared a new study with them that was recently performed my NMFS that estimates the passage of AB 2019 could result in a potential employment loss of up to 136 full-time jobs with a total economic loss of about $14.513 million.
Our ability to defeat AB 2019 marks a very important moment for U.S. fisheries that are under attack by very powerful environmental groups that have a lot of money. This was a major victory for the underdogs, the good guys, and the ones who don’t think they stand a chance to stand up and fight for what’s right against the big environmental groups. This gives me hope for the future, as I’m sure this will not be our last fight.
Letters of opposition need to be written to:
On February 20, 2014 Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-San Jose) and others introduced legislation (AB 2019) to ban California’s drift gillnet (DGN) fishery for swordfish and sharks. The bill sponsors, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, claim CA gillnets are “curtains of death” that indiscriminately kill more than “100 marine mammals every year.” Now if those loaded statements don’t tug on your heart, the graphic images presented to the Legislature and distributed via the internet of marine mammals caught as bycatch in the CA DGN fishery just might have done the job.
If you know little to nothing about the CA DGN fishery then this new bill probably sounds like a great thing to you. When people read about this bill, most probably think of it as a no-brainer. This is no accident. But I’m sorry to say that this particular bill and the motivation behind it may be the single most complex and misunderstood fisheries issue that I know of at the moment. Even worse, I believe it will harm ocean health more than it will help. This campaign is a well thought out, calculated plan that has been in the works for several years by Geoff Shester at Oceana and others.
The bill is being funded by a recent $3million donation from Leonardo DiCaprio to Oceana. “It is my hope that this grant will help Oceana continue the tremendous work that they do daily on behalf of our oceans,” DiCaprio said in a press release. That is the hope, but is this money being used wisely? Could it have been better spent elsewhere?
If you have not yet read my 2-part series on why I support the CA DGN fishery then I urge you to please do so before reading on. It focuses on the background and success stories of CA DGN fishery and why I support it, which relates to my views here. If you want to earn extra credit then please view some workshop materials regarding this fishery. I’d rather focus this post on a few of the reasons why I, an avid and dedicated ocean conservationist, am against AB 2019.
Desperate and Dishonest
When I said AB 2019 is a well thought out, calculated plan I meant it, but not in a good way. In August 2012 Oceana filed a petition for additional federal and state protection of white sharks under the Endangered Species Act in California (ESA). This baffled shark scientists who study white sharks for a living and believe white shark populations are on the rise in California. Even worse, an ESA listing of white sharks in California would actually make it harder, if not impossible for some researchers to obtain permits for the much needed additional research of white sharks.
ESA protection status for white sharks in CA means that any fishery gear that comes in contact with white sharks in CA would be effectively eliminated, in this case the DGN fishery which rarely catches young juvenile white sharks on accident and cooperates with researchers to release them alive.
So why did Oceana file this petition? Was it to save sharks or shut down the CA DGN fishery? I called Geoff Shester at Oceana last year to ask him just that, and our conversation deeply saddened me. I said to him, “Geoff, you are a smart guy. You know white sharks do not need ESA protection and you know their population is on the rise here, so what are you trying to do? What do you want?” He answered, “ I want to shut down the gillnet fishery.”
Images of dead marine mammals may be disturbing, but what I find even more disturbing is the blatant dishonesty of Shester’s actions. Not to mention all the time and funds that our state and government waste having to analyze these types of ill-advised petitions to protect themselves from future litigation from the groups that filed them.
NOAA rejected the federal petition in July 2013 after a one-year review stating among other things that the CA DGN fishery posed little to no threat on our white shark populations. The state (California Department of Fish & Wildlife) will announce their one-year review and evaluation of the petition by the end of February 2014. I expect they will reject it, and I think Shester does, too.
The timing of AB 2019 and the history of Geoff Shester and Oceana’s repeated failures to kill an already crippled CA fishery, tells me that AB 2019 is Shester’s last-ditch effort to save his own job at Oceana.
There are currently 19 active permits in CA to target sharks and swordfish with DGN gear. The language of the bill states these permits will be replaced with generic permits that allow the capture of sharks and swordfish, but requires switching to more selective gear (hand-held hook and line or handthrusted harpoon). In addition to this, the bill opens the door to additional permits to anyone who wants to catch sharks (who did not previously own one of the 19 permits) but only if they use the suggested selective gear. The bill also reopens the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA), a pelagic reserve spanning 230,000 square miles designed to protect migrating sea turtles that come here to feed off jellyfish to anyone with this new, generic shark and swordfish permit.
This may sound like the potential for a free-for-all with additional shark-catching permits issued coupled with the reopening of a pelagic reserve. Sounds potentially good for fishermen, right? Nope, it’s just carefully written language that makes it appear as though fishermen have a viable alternative. While the new suggested selective gear looks good on paper, the problem is that it’s not feasible for fishermen to make a profit using that gear.
The other angle of AB 2019’s launch that I oppose is the use of graphic images of dead marine mammals. They were disturbing to look at, and that’s why they were used. It’s a real cheap shot and a low blow. Reminds me of one of those Sarah McLachlan dog commercials that I just can’t look at, or some graphic PETA ad. This is a desperate, extremist conservation tactic at its worst. Imagine if we had to look at images of all the other animals that are killed domestically and internationally to support us great humans? No thanks. Stay classy Oceana.
Nothing is perfect. No fisheries are perfect. There is always a give and take. The silver lining is that the CA DGN fishery is easily the most heavily regulated and possibly most sustainable shark fishery in the world. Without it, what example do other nations with little to zero management, enforcement and observation have to follow, especially when they have to fill an increased market demand?
I recently learned of this website. When you register for a free account you will see the CEO of Oceana, Andy Sharpless took home $242,612 of your donation money in 2012. Must be nice. A simple search will also reveal that Sharpless is among 9 other executives at Oceana that earned a combined $1,598,613 in 2012. Oceana spent $894,836 on travel expenses alone in 2012. The salaries of these top 10 executives at Oceana and the travel expenses in one year alone equal close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s generous $3mil donation. Perhaps Oceana should use donations for actual effective ocean conservation rather than using it for personal agenda? Or maybe Oceana should focus on lowering their overhead a tad? Or how about just being honest? Sigh.
This is just the beginning of my fight against AB 2019. If you want to join me please contact me or stay tuned for my next post to learn more.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, after two years of obsessing over California’s drift gillnet (DGN) fishery for swordfish and sharks, I was finally about to talk to a local commercial fisherman who has been gillnetting for over twenty years. Out of the blue, I received the following email from him in November of 2010:
Subject: Please check your facts!
I recently read your blog on commercial shark fishing, SharkFreeSB needs a reality check. Your post about thresher shark fishing omitted a ton of pertinent facts. The facts are there has been a drastic decline in fishing effort since 1982 when there was 200 or more active drift gillnet (DGN) fishing boats. Why wasn’t this mentioned?
In the late 1980’s California Fish & Game biologist Dennis Bedford helped draft a new law prohibiting DGN fishing for thresher sharks from May 1st to August 15th to protect thresher sharks that come inshore to bare their young and mate. Is this fact new to SharkFreeSB? Also in 2001 all DGN fishing was closed from May 1st to November 15th from Pt. Sur CA. to Newport Oregon effectively creating a pelagic shark reserve of thousands of square miles. Can SharkFreeSB calculate how many threshers exist from Pt. Sur, California to Newport, Oregon?
Today there is a massive recreational thresher shark fishery during birthing and mating season in Southern California during the time DGN are not allowed to fish!
Please check out these statements with any California Fish & Game or any National Marine Fishery biologist.
I remain… (name)
The email above hit me like a brick. Although I knew about some of the restrictions he had mentioned, I had never realized how much they correlated with the decrease in landings. Noting a decrease in fishing effort combined with area and time closures helped explain the decrease in landings and helped to fill in a lot of the blanks that had kept me from understanding the history and current state of our shark fishery. For the very first time I was starting to realize and respect just how complicated fisheries are. Finally.
I immediately called the fisherman and spent almost two hours on the phone talking about everything from shark finning (which used to be very legal), shark fishing, bycatch mitigation efforts, and IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) foreign fishing vessels that he has seen drift netting illegally in our waters on the high seas. He also explained how all the DGN fishery restrictions over the years have forced him to expand into other fisheries during the summer just to make ends meet. Every spring he switches his DGN gear made to target swordfish and sharks, to trolling gear that targets albacore in the summer off the Oregon coast. He obviously does not get paid for the many days needed to switch gear, not to mention the money to buy additional fishing permits and the long months he has to spend away from his family in Southern California to go fish and live in Oregon. It’s sacrifices and risks like these that U.S. fishermen take just to put food on our tables that are rarely recognized and appreciated.
I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of knowledge the shark fisherman was willing to share with me in such a polite manner, especially considering I was essentially attacking his way of life. Even though I am not a fisherman and have no idea what it feels like to have other folks trying to shut my fishery down, I can still use analogies to help me understand how that must feel. I guess since I am a graphic designer, it would be a bit like some group that knows nothing about graphic design telling me that they don’t think I should use Photoshop anymore. That would not only make my job more difficult, but it would probably force me to find another profession. When we put ourselves in a fisherman’s shoes it’s no wonder that most fisherman think most conservationists are crazy. It’s because a lot of us are. We get so caught up in our passions and emotions that it’s hard for us to realize that fishermen are conservationists, too. Unlike us, their livelihoods depend on preserving our ocean’s resources.
After researching the fisherman’s statements, I learned that he was actually being very conservative in regards to his references regarding a decrease in fishing effort and increase in area/time closures over the years. In addition to the closures he mentioned, I learned that in 1985, a closure was implemented in CA’s DGN fishery from December 15 – January 31 within 25 miles of the coast to protect whales, mainly migrating gray whales. I also learned that in 1990 voters approved Prop 132, which removed gillnets from state waters (within 3 miles of coast) and within one mile of the Channel Islands mostly in order to avoid interactions with pinnipeds. Then I learned that the closure implemented in 2001 “creating a pelagic shark reserve of thousands of square miles,” actually turned out to be the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA), which was implemented to protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that come here to feed on jellyfish. When the fisherman said the PLCA covered “thousands of square miles,” he actually meant 230,000 square miles. When the PLCA reopens, the weather is typically too bad to fish anyway, creating serious safety-at-sea issues for the ones who decide to tough it out.
When you take weather, area/time closures and the fact that the DGN fishing season runs from May 1st – January 31st, one could say for all intensive purposes it is a year round ban. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there are only around 32 active vessels in the fishery today compared to 200 in 1982. With only 32 vessels in California that still use DGN gear today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to satisfy America’s demand for swordfish which has been about 2 to 3 times total U.S. domestic landings. Considering the pending legislation to ban the sale, possession and distribution of shark fins in California combined with what I was learning about our shark fishery, I decided to pull the plug on SharkFreeSB.com for good. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Right about this time I learned about this campaign that was responsible for removing locally caught common thresher and mako shark meat from the shelves of Henry’s Farmers Market chain’s 41 stores in California. Although all of my shark friends thought of this as a victory for sharks, I thought of it as a big mistake that I was partly responsible for. The NGO responsible for this campaign was the same NGO that invited me to speak about my SharkFreeSB campaign about a year earlier. While I was busy learning the facts about our DGN fishery, the NGO was engaging in an ill-advised campaign (that I had inspired) aimed directly at CA’s embattled DGN fishery.
That year ended up to be Henry’s Farmers Market’s worst year in seafood sales in the company’s entire history. Also, fishermen were at sea catching common thresher sharks during the time of this campaign so when they came to port with the sharks they had caught (20,000 lbs. to be exact), seafood buyers could not give fishermen a decent price because their retail clients were starting to reject offers. As a result, most of the shark meat was donated to a local homeless shelter. This is just one example of how a campaign intended to save sharks had negative transfer effects all the way down every link of the market chain and did not save the life of a single shark. This weighed heavy on my heart and I felt an obligation to make things right, but how?
Even though fisheries are complicated, many folks want seafood choices to be simple and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program seems to be the go-to guide for folks wishing to make responsible seafood choices. At this time, the Seafood Watch program advised that all shark meat should be “avoided.” This rating fueled my previous misconceptions about CA’s shark fishery and now this rating was being used as fuel by an NGO to justify another campaign that targets locally caught shark meat. Coincidentally, around this time a scientist friend of mine was contacted by the Seafood Watch program asking if she would be interested in helping them with a much needed evaluation on the sustainability of California’s shark fisheries, which was way overdue. Great timing!
I told my partner I’d be happy to help and I called my contact at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ask for help in providing any documents needed to properly evaluate CA’s DGN fishery. I explained to him the difficulties we have had with chefs as well as ourselves in understanding CA’s DGN fishery and also referenced the recent NGO campaign to boycott shark meat. As far as NMFS and NOAA go, it is not in their best interest to take sides. It’s in NOAA’s best interest to present the facts in an unbiased manner, and this is exactly what they did.
After my phone call, NMFS organized an information sharing workshop about California’s drift gillnet fishery that was held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California in April of 2011. Attendees included the President of the NGO responsible for the Henry’s Market shark meat boycott campaign, DGN fishermen, seafood buyers and processors, Henry’s Director of meat & seafood, fisheries biologists, fisheries economists as well as representation from Seafood for the Future and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. The hope was that everyone involved would leave with a common understanding of the West coast DGN fishery for swordfish and sharks.
Robin Pelc, a representative of Seafood Watch was asked why common thresher sharks were listed as a species to “avoid.” Robin said the rating was based off of the IUCN listing as vulnerable coupled with a high bycatch to target ratio of 144% by number. NMFS scientists responded by stating that over 90% of the total bycatch by numbers in the DGN fishery comes from a single species, the common mola (sunfish). Although there has not been a definitive study on the survivorship of common mola released from DGN gear, observations by NMFS observers and researchers suggest that a high percent (>90%) of them are released alive.
The workshop was a success and the following statement was agreed on by all parties present – “Locally caught common thresher shark comes from a well managed U.S. fishery and is harvested with appropriate methods and safeguards to ensure sustainability.” The success of this workshop led to additional workshops held at the Westin in San Diego on May 10th & 11th, 2011. I ask that you please review the presentations found here because there is way too much cool stuff in there to cover in this post. Among the many things I learned at this workshop was that the population of common thresher and mako sharks is actually on the upswing and that bycatch of non-seafood species (marine mammals) has been cut in half due to successful bycatch mitigation efforts.
The information from these workshops was instrumental in the Seafood Watch programs decision to change the ranking of common thresher and shortfin mako sharks caught in California and Hawaii from “avoid” to a “good alternative” ranking just months after the meeting. Finally I felt at peace and thought that I could put all of this fisheries research and politics aside for a bit and just relax, but that didn’t last long.
It turns out the DGN workshops and the decision by Seafood Watch to say that locally harvested shark meat was a “good alternative” seafood choice was not enough to fix the image problem that our gillnet fisheries face. There are still many NGO’s out there that still accuse our gillnet fisheries of being “curtains of death” and would love to see our gillnet fisheries shut down. I’m not sure if these NGO’s understand the facts about these fisheries and the transfer effects involved with shutting them down, or if they just decide to ignore the facts to push their agenda. Either way, seeing press releases like this one reminded me that I still had a lot of work to do.
I started by responding to the Center of Biological Diversity on Twitter and my tweets caught the attention of David Shiffman from Southern Fried Science. David asked me if I’d be willing to write a guest post about CA’s DGN fishery for swordfish and sharks on his blog. I was thrilled at the offer and I proceeded to write my very first post about the transfer effects associated with anti-gillnet campaigns that I was all too familiar with. I am forever thankful to David Shiffman of SFS for giving me the opportunity to share my point of view. After asking if I could write a follow-up post about Hawaii’s shallow-set longline fishery for swordfish, David suggested that I start my own blog considering I had so much to say. I didn’t hesitate at all and within two weeks from my SFS post, EatUSseafood.com was born in March of 2012.
Now I just try to keep it simple by sticking to what I know. One thing that I know is that 91% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. This is up from 67% just 11 years ago creating an annual trade deficit of more than $10.4 billion, which is second only to oil in the natural resources category. This fact alone provides me with all the motivation I need to do what I do in my spare time. Since U.S fisheries are arguably the best managed fisheries in the world, I decided to support U.S. fisheries rather than attacking them and it’s the best campaign I’ve ever been a part of.
Another thing I know is that at the $3.50-$5.00 per lb. price range, CA & Hawaiian caught common thresher shark is an affordable protein source that is low in mercury and is only available 2-3 months per year. Taking this product out of the equation displaces honest U.S. fishermen (and everyone else in the seafood market chain) and also opens the door to more imports of seafood that is less ethically sourced (understatement of the year) to fill the demand for cheap protein. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you need to eat sharks to save them, I’m just saying that participating in campaigns designed to shut down responsible U.S. shark fisheries can actually do more bad than good for sharks worldwide.
I don’t get paid to fish and I don’t get paid to study or promote ocean conservation. I represent the 99% of the rest of us that volunteer our time to do the right thing for our oceans. Unlike fishermen and NGOs, we have nothing to gain or lose financially from conservation campaigns. We are genuinely pure, well-intentioned sponges. From my observations and experiences I have to say that the 99% of us sponges really have a lot working against us if we wish to hear all sides of any fisheries issue.
We are only subject to the information at hand and it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that fishermen are too busy fishing to have a chance to respond to and compete with all the attack campaigns that NGOs create against them. Fishermen spend their time fishing and they simply don’t have the time, money or resources that NGOs have to share their side of the story far and wide. The 99% of us really have a lot of power to do good for our oceans, but only if we are willing to do a bit of homework. But don’t worry because if you are anything like me, fisheries homework is fun as hell.
Shark (and ocean) conservationists are slammed with action alerts and petitions from NGOs that are designed to make it very easy for us to act, but they often oversimplify extremely complex issues. Remember that unlike us, these NGOs are being paid and they need our donations to feed their payroll. Ocean conservation has become a big business and it deeply saddens me to say that there are some NGOs that intentionally mislead the 99% of us into thinking that we are actually doing the right thing by contributing to their campaigns. If you got an email from someone saying you won $2,000,000.00 in the British Lottery and all you need to do is provide them with your personal info to receive the funds, I hope you’d be a little skeptical. I believe we should be just as skeptical about signing any action alert or petition that comes our way. We need to have our guards up and be aware of the fact that fisheries issues are anything but simple.
Direct actions have consequences and it’s up to us as to whether the consequences are positive or negative. It’s imperative that we investigate all sides of fisheries issues at hand before we make any decision to act one way or the other. If you aren’t sure about what you are signing or donating to, then the best action you can take is no action at all. Don’t be afraid to admit you are not an expert on fisheries issues because the fact is that over 99% of us aren’t experts either. Sorry, but we need to be more humble about this.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed I send some pretty nasty tweets to NGOs that engage in campaigns that I believe are misleading, dishonest and counterproductive. This is because it personally offends me to think that folks would intentionally lie to take advantage of our good intentions and money. I see this as nothing short of fraud and it bums me out how even the largest NGOs seem to be guilty of this sort of bullying. This is a waste of good intentions and money that could be directed towards effective conservation and it upsets me very much. It may sound harsh but I believe a bully needs to be bullied. In High School I used to hang out near the mentally challenged folks at lunch and I would mess with anyone that was cruel enough to mess with them. I like to stick up for folks that have a hard time sticking up for themselves, and now I want to stick up for honest U.S. fishermen. That being said, I hope you understand why I tweet what I tweet.
I’ve been referred to as a “rare bird” by fisheries managers before because of all the time I spend promoting and defending U.S fisheries. I really wish more shark (and ocean) conservationists would be rare birds, too. When we start to understand that U.S. fishermen are not evil and start to realize that they are people just trying to make a living like anyone else, it gives fishermen the option to actually take us seriously. This opens the door to future collaboration between conservationists, scientists and fishermen, rather than polarization. Think about it, fishermen are and always have been the real stewards of the sea. Remember that unlike us, their livelihoods depend on it. The knowledge, assistance and participation from U.S. fisherman are essential if we wish to achieve the conservation goals that we all have in common.
Preconceived opinion not based on reason or experience.
I admit I used to be prejudiced towards gillnet fisheries. I used to believe that all gillnet fisheries should be shut down, period. In my defense, all I knew of gillnets were the injuries that they can cause. During my time as a volunteer for the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center from 2007-2011, I personally rescued over 20 sea lions with gillnet entanglements. Although 100% of these animals were eventually released alive, the sites and smells of those injuries throughout the rehabilitation process still haunt me to this day. I didn’t understand why gillnet fisheries still existed and I was hungry to learn more. And thus began my incredibly humbling journey to learn more about California’s set and drift gillnet fisheries which target swordfish, thresher sharks, halibut and white seabass.
I’m telling my story for a couple reasons. First because I know a lot of folks share my intense passion and genuine intention to help preserve our world’s oceans, but like me are not very sure where and how to start. I want to share some lessons I learned the hard way in an effort to prevent you from wasting your time. I’m also writing this because I think it’s scary how easy it is for someone that knows very little about shark fisheries to be considered an “expert” on the subject with the power to influence other like-minded conservationists. And finally, I want to show how it’s possible (and quite necessary) for shark conservationists to understand and support responsible shark fishing. This is contrary to popular belief for most so if you disagree I urge you to read on. The only problem is that my story is so complicated that I split it into two parts so please stay with me.
I’ll admit it, like many other shark conservationists my journey began once I saw the documentary Sharkwater. Although I cringe at the sound of Sharkwater now for many reasons, this film was my introduction to shark finning and seeing it for the first time in 2008 changed my life to say the very least. This film made me very upset and sparked my obsession to learn more about sharks in an effort to help save them. I wasn’t sure where to start so I just Googled “how can I volunteer for a shark conservation group?”
I remember the top three websites that came up were Sea Shepherd, Oceana and SharkSavers. I filled out online applications for all three sites and mentioned that I was a graphic designer. I heard back almost immediately from SharkSavers and next thing I knew I was doing illustrations of sharks for a shark conservation themed activity book for children as well as some other projects. The folks I met from SharkSavers were like rockstars to me and I cherish those memories to this day. Using my artistic talents to help protect what I love was instant satisfaction for me, but soon I felt the need to do even more. I wanted to help end shark finning and I wasn’t convinced that my illustrations were helping.
So I decided to call all sixteen Chinese restaurants in Santa Barbara, California (my hometown) to see if any of them served sharks fin soup. After hearing “no” from the first fifteen restaurants, the last one told me that it was not on their menu but they could serve it for me if I had several guests with me as long as I give them one weeks notice. This got me thinking about whether or not the other restaurants I had spoken to would offer the same service. So, I called the all fifteen of the other restaurants back and disguised my voice as a woman wanting to have a party with sharks fin soup prepared. To my surprise, seven of the restaurants said they would serve me the soup. My detective work had payed off, but this was bitter sweet as I was disgusted to learn that sharks fin soup was being served at restaurants I had eaten at many times. So now I had a list of eight restaurants in Santa Barbara that served sharks fin soup and eight restaurants that did not. So now what?
I started a website called SharkFreeSB.com in 2009 with the intentions of persuading these eight restaurants to stop serving the soup. The home page of my site listed the eight restaurants that served the soup in red, as well as the eight “shark-free alternative” restaurants listed beside it. I printed out some sharks fin informational handouts that I downloaded from websites that were in both English and Chinese. I personally met with all of the owners of these restaurants in an attempt to educate them about the issue with hopes they’d pull it from the menu. I was not successful in this regard, yet my website was getting international attention by this time.
I was contacted by a prominent shark conservation website across the pond who asked permission to list my website on theirs as an example of what everyone should be doing in their hometown. Next, a shark conservation group in Los Angeles asked me to give a presentation about my website campaign to a large audience. Then a woman in Saint Louis, Missouri contacted me asking if she could “steal” the template of my website for an identical campaign in her town, so I ended up designing her a logo and website for free. Even though in the grand scheme of things I really had no idea what the hell I was doing or even talking about at this point (and still don’t), just hearing that I was actually influencing folks was enough to make me feel like I was doing the right thing. This inspired me to carry on with the website.
It wasn’t long before the sight of thresher and mako shark meat for sale in Santa Barbara caught my attention. After some minor research on California’s shark fisheries, I noticed that all of them had a similar pattern in landings that didn’t sit right with me. I noticed the steep increase in landings followed by a steep decline in landings in all of our shark fisheries and assumed these were boom-and-bust fisheries. All I had heard about shark meat up to this point was that it was unhealthy due to mercury concerns. I noticed some markets and restaurants in Santa Barbara sold shark meat and others didn’t, so I decided to expand my website to include shark meat on it’s lists with the intention of getting all shark meat out of town. At the time, it sounded like a great idea to me as well as all of my new shark buddies. But was it really a good idea, or was I getting in over my head?
Many people in Santa Barbara have two jobs in order to make ends meet and I have a few close friends I grew up with that are part-time commercial fishermen. Even though I knew they targeted halibut, I knew nothing about what else they caught. I told one of my buddies about my website and my intentions to shut down our local shark fisheries and was surprised to hear that he regularly catches thresher sharks on accident when trolling for halibut. He said that he gets around $8.00 per pound for live halibut and around $1.00 per pound of shark. I learned that when he is not able to catch halibut, the thresher sharks he catches on accident are essential to making his fishing trips worth his time.
I told my friend that thresher sharks were over-fished and suggested that he could make more money by bringing folks to dive with thresher sharks rather than killing them. My SharkSavers contacts put me in touch with shark diving big shot Jim Abernethy and photographer Shawn Heinrichs who said they would pay my friend for a “fact finding mission.” My friend was not as confident about being able to bring folks to where these elusive sharks were on a consistent basis and said visibility would be an issue so the idea eventually fizzled out.
In 2009 I learned of a group in Santa Barbara that was going around to restaurants and educating chefs about “sustainable” seafood in an effort to promote the sales of local seafood in local restaurants. I told them about my website and I ended up partnering with them as their “shark expert.” My job was to basically break the news to chefs that they could not be in our program if they served shark meat of any kind. I thought this was a no-brainer because at the time all shark meat was on the Seafood Watch “avoid” list so it must be bad, right? But after a very pointed question from one chef, I realized seafood choices are anything but a no-brainer. The chef asked me, “So you say I can’t serve this thresher shark meat because it’s not sustainable, but you say it’s OK to serve this halibut that was caught it the same net as the sharks? I don’t get it.”
I didn’t get it either. I don’t remember what I told the chef after that, but I said enough for him to remove local thresher shark from his menu. What I do remember is walking away feeling very dirty. For the first time I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?” “ How did I get here?” “Am I really doing the right thing?” This gut check was another life-changing moment.
Around this time I decided not to renew my web hosting for SharkFreeSB.com. In other words, I decided to shut my site down temporarily until I could reassess my goals for the site. I decided to hit the books and really study California’s drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and sharks in search of some answers. Rather than just looking at landing records, I decided to dig into how this fishery is managed and why it exists. It wasn’t long before I was speaking with folks at NOAA and they directed me to an overwhelming amount of information. As overwhelming as it was, it was also fun as hell to learn about such a complicated and interesting fishery.
Then Hawaii passed a bill to ban the sale, possession and distribution of sharks fins. Although I was still on the fence about shark meat, I was still very much against shark finning and saw this as a huge victory for sharks. I was contacted by my shark friends who invited me to a meeting in Long Beach with the objective of enacting similar legislation in California. This was a meeting of the minds that included former Senator Hee of Hawaii, pioneer shark diver Stan Waterman, the artist Wyland, as well as some shark conservation bigshots such as Stefani Brendl and Shawn Heinrichs.
Again I asked myself, “How did I get here?” Fortunately, by this time I was armed with enough info about California’s shark fisheries to feel somewhat worthy of attending the meeting. I still didn’t know much about our shark fisheries but I knew more than anyone in the room, which is pretty scary. By the end of the meeting we decided to call ourselves the California Shark Coalition and California Assembly Bill 376 was born that day. We were eventually given individual tasks and titles and I was to be the “Fisheries Liaison.” My job was to increase support of the bill from local fisherman and reduce their opposition. The problem with this is that even though I had done quite a bit of research about California’s shark fisheries by this point, I still hadn’t spoken with an actual shark fisherman other than my buddy. But that was about to change, fast.
In light of the meeting in Long Beach, I decided to temporarily turn my website back on so that other members of the California Shark Coalition could see who I was. Even though my website did not fully represent my views at the time, we live in a world where everyone Googles one another and I needed some kind of identity at the meeting. The tough decision to put the site back up turned out to be a blessing in disguise because all of a sudden a local gillnet fisherman who catches sharks contacted me after coming across my website. You can chalk up this conversation and the relationships that followed as life-changing moment number three.