PALM BEACH, Florida – Off Palm Beach, aboard the Miss Jackie de Calypso, a small group of divers and I set out to sea for a close encounter with one of the ocean’s most overlooked creatures.
The ultimate predator, the shark.
âReally, shark populations, there are very few places on this whole planet where they are what they used to be,â Stefanie Brendl said.
She would know. She is the founder of Shark Allies, an conservationist who has fought for more than a decade for laws and protections to save the world’s declining shark population.
âAnyone who loves the ocean, who wants to have a healthy environment, needs sharks a little bit,â she said.
Dreaded and unfairly maligned like the villains of the sea, it is the shark that is actually responsible for keeping our oceans healthy. These are the doctors of the sea, who keep fish populations healthy by eating the slow, sick and weak, thus preventing diseases from becoming ocean pandemics.
Without sharks, the entire marine ecosystem would collapse.
âIt doesn’t matter whether you love them or hate them, it doesn’t matter – they’re just important to the system,â Brendl said.
And yet, we continue to decimate them around the world, killing over 73 million sharks a year.
They evolved over 400 million years ago and survived five mass extinctions, to face their biggest threat right now: us. Every day millions of sharks are caught, mainly for their fins.
It is the global fin trade that leads mainly to slaughter. Even though the âfinningâ of live sharks is no longer legal in the United States, shark fins continue to be bought and sold here.
âIf anyone thinks it’s sustainable, that’s madness,â Brendl said. “Every country participates in the fin industry, whether they supply the sharks, market the fins, or simply allow trade to go through the state.”
Last year, Florida became the 14th state to ban the shark fin trade, but a loophole still allows shark fishermen with valid permits to sell and export them here.
âThere aren’t a lot of sharks,â said Luis Roman of Calypso Dive Charters at Riviera Beach. “People think there are a lot of them, but in reality there are maybe 20 or so in a pod.”
Roman has been diving in these waters for over 10 years. Calypso Dive Charters specializes in providing people around the world with a cage-free shark diving experience.
âBefore, you could dive with three or four tiger sharks at a time,â he said. “Now we only see one or two.”
Over the years, Roman has personally witnessed the decline in the number of sharks migrating to these waters, and he’s worried about what that will mean for Florida’s essential ecotourism activity.
Its mission is to wake people up.
âWe want to change minds. We want to be able to see how graceful these animals are, âsaid Roman. âIt’s not these man-eating machines. In fact, they are more afraid of people than people are.
The point is, it is not the shark that is the man eater but the man who is the shark eater. On average, there are only 140 shark bite incidents per year worldwide, and less than six are fatal.
J Mac is a videographer who flies his drone almost daily over the shores of South Beach. It captures incredible images and videos of humans in the ocean, oblivious to the fact that they are swimming with sharks.
âThey are there. This is their ocean,â he said. âFor the most part, when there is a shark in the water and there is a human kind that comes close to one of them. the other, the shark notices them first and flies off the other way. “
That day, when Local 10 News joined Calypso Dive Charters, it took four dives and four hours to finally find our first shark, a solitary sandbank shark.
Severely overfished and prized for its huge fins, the species is now protected in state and federal waters.
More strikingly, there was no fish.
âWe should see tons of life even in the water column,â said Rayna O’Nan, diving instructor. “We should see tons of fish from jack to bonita to blue runners and we really didn’t see much today.”
No fish, no sharks. A harbinger of what’s to come, or a harbinger of what we stand to lose if we don’t urgently act to save them now?
âIt’s a problem for everyone,â Brendl said. âBecause the ocean belongs to everyone and no one, but we all depend on it. We are all dependent on the planet and the planet is 70% made up of oceans, so saving sharks is in our best interests for many reasons. “
Maybe the third time it’s the charm. After two attempts last June, the US Senate passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, banning trade in shark fins and products containing shark fins. This bill will now head to the House, where both houses will negotiate the final form of the package.
Sign an Oceana petition to encourage Congress to pass the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, Click here.
To follow Shark Allies, Click here.
For more information on Calypso Dive Charters, Click here.
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