Exploiting Wildlife for Its Own Good

From the time diving and underwater motion picture pioneer, Hans Hass, pressed the record button on his homemade camera in the early 1900's and pointed that lens toward a shark, a door was opened, giving the rest of the world its first celluloid sneak peek into the secret world of these animals. Up to that point, grayscale hand drawings in a dictionary and wild imagination were about all the reference most human beings had. In subsequent decades, that door was forever ripped off its hinges by the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Peter Gimbal, Ron and Valerie Taylor, and envelope-pushing explorers and camerapersons like Al Giddings. Al is considered the first to produce 'professional' underwater footage of white sharks, and was among, if not the first, to do so outside the confines of a safety cage.

His documented explorations of every ocean on the planet netted him numerous Emmys; essentially paving the way for a new job description -- 'Marine Cinematographer'. Hollywood eventually came calling and his work can now be seen in James Bond movies, other feature films, like 'The Deep' and a lengthy list of documentaries and other educational and entertainment products. This isn't all about Giddings, but he is an appropriate example, along with many others since that have made invaluable contributions to our knowledge of sharks, their behavior and marine habitats; none of which would have been accomplished without those innerspace pioneers shooting sharks with cameras. The fact is, and I think they'd be the first to say, there still remains far more that we don't know. Fortunately, thanks to human nature, the exploration torch is one that always gets passed without ever touching the ground.

Despite that, and in some ways because of it, there's been increasing chatter and controversy about the so-called exploitation of sharks, as ‘perpetrated’ by recreational and tourism-driven industries like shark diving, fishing, and by the collective media. On the latter, reporting mediums like print and cable news outlets aren’t being singled out. Television and movies are in that mix, too. About all that chatter and controversy -- where’s it coming from, who’s involved and why? As a diver, big game angler, shark shooter and advocate for sustainable policies and practices, they’re relevant questions, with interesting answers that, for me, break down like this. The shark diving industry gets it from the political and public policy-making arena – mostly under the guise of public safety. The recreational fishing industry gets it from certain segments of the shark conservation, diving and research communities – largely under the auspices of over-fishing, and sometimes, even animal rights. And the collective media? They get it, mostly, from the shark conservation and diving industries, some of which, by virtue of occupational diversity, are also media providers.

Sounds simple enough, right? Yeah, sure it does. Here’s the interesting part, though, and one that gets drowned out, amidst the roar of all these people talking at the same time about, strangely enough, a lot of the same things. Unless it’s the sound of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra warming up, cacophony typically results in chaos and disorder. Likewise, while everyone goes on talking at and not with each other, it’s the differences that get heard, abhorred and ignored, while all that common ground remains largely untraveled. Contrary to some popular belief, within these groups, there is an overwhelmingly common interest and desire for not only the sustainability of shark populations, but also a healthy condition for the world’s marine habitats overall. For recreational enthusiasts, and the outfitters, guides and providers of their desired activities, it’s pretty damn cut and dry. If you’re one that is regularly diving with, fishing for or shooting sharks, you care, and you’re a conservationist by definition because you want to keep doing what you enjoy doing or perhaps make a living providing.

Conservation is a funny sort of word, but only based on some people’s reaction to it. It tends to be suspect or immediately controversial, depending upon who you’re talking to, and what the subject may be. Most sensible and reasonable people get it, though. Personally, I’ve taken to using the term ‘sustainable’ when talking about ... conservation. I don’t know anyone that brushes their teeth in the morning and leaves the water running until they get home from work, but let’s face it; there are people with wasteful habits and indifferent attitudes to support them. Call it a glass half full or just a slow bartender, but I have to believe those suffering from the lack of an ability to give a damn are the exception and not the rule. Either way, conservation … sustainability, it all boils neatly down to a vested interest in the same critical resources, but from a variety of perspectives, regarding how those resources are enjoyed, used and cared for.

I know personally, and all-too-well, that quick glances and broad brush strokes paint blurry portraits of those who may not be in complete lockstep with your way of thinking or doing. It goes back and forth and round and round. Someone catches a shark. Someone else tries to stop them from ever doing so again. Somebody pays and someone else obliges them in their desire to go face-to-face with sharks in the wild. Another shoots video of a shark while another views it on tv, as part of a news broadcast or maybe in the movies. And yet another is always standing by, warming up those ten fingers of fury to blog about mercury levels in shark meat poisoning the homeless and downtrodden of America, and the shameless exploitation of these, ‘beautiful creatures poised on the brink of extinction’. What we get in the end often amounts to pointless blame-gaming and fame-claiming; classic hero versus villain fodder with forgone opportunities to actually get something accomplished being all we've got to show for it. It’s a little like watching sausage being made, but not quite as purposeful.

Nowadays, there are exceptions slowly, but efficiently turning tables on the recent trend of rampantly ineffective discord. This is a damn good thing that also helps me make swift decisions about how to align myself, and where to leverage my time, effort and passion, but enough about me. What’s the real issue at hand, again? Oh, yeah. Now, I remember. Sharks -- so easily and often lost in all the confusion. Uniquely, these animals are like an ironic chum for many people, including me. They make for reliable story content, news and overall economic drivers, and unlike any other wild animal, sharks tend to get human blood and passions boiling so hot they can probably smell it cooking from a mile way, out there on the brink.

Why Responsible Recreational Exploitation is Good and Necessary

With shark-inspired recreational pursuits, it's not as cut and dry as a simple matter of exploitation being bad. For what it's worth, definitions of exploitation include: 1. use or utilization, esp. for profit: the exploitation of newly discovered oil fields 2. selfish utilization: He got ahead through the exploitation of his friends. And 3. the combined, often varied, use of public-relations and advertising techniques to promote a person, movie, product, etc. With the exception of No. 2, 'exploitation', in and of itself, isn't a bad thing.

Responsible exploitation for the purpose of practicing, supporting, promoting and encouraging long-term sustainability of a natural resource is a good and necessary thing. Take our national park system as one example. Perfect? What’s that look like? Better than not at all? Of course. I wonder how many condos, gated communities and resorts would be littering the mountainsides of Yosemite without the foresight of Roosevelt and other in that movement. It’s their proactive exploitation of some type of supported system designed to create a sense of connectedness, enjoyment, and responsibility that prevented a certain plunderous scourge. Shark diving and recreational fishing, like any industry, are not flawless or without detractors (even between themselves). Both, however, serve vital roles in the successful sustainability of shark populations and healthy marine environments worldwide because the overwhelming majority of involved parties care passionately, to the point of fanatical extremism in some case, about the resource.

I talk a lot about profitable sustainability and there’s no better example of that here. The sport fishing industry, in the US alone, results in $125 billion annually, supporting local economies and jobs in all fifty states. How much of that can be attributed to shark fishing is hard to say. I'll throw it a fractional bone, but when we're talking billions, it's substantial. According to Shark Divers CEO, Patrick Douglas, divers spend US$2.3 million a year on shark dives in the Maldives - a value estimated at 100 times more than the export value of the shark meat. In the Bahamas shark tourism pumps an estimated US$70 million dollars into the local economy there. Those are big numbers, but they could and should be much, much bigger. I agree with the simple, but profound idea that a live shark, in other words a sustainable, renewable resource, is worth far more than a dead one. I'm behind efforts to see if we can't put a B in place of the M in millions when it comes to tourism-driven recreational activities like shark diving.

Sure, there’s fixing to be done. There always is. Those of us in our respective shark-centric industries that see this bigger picture, are always fixing. More and more, these days, we’re even working together in that effort. It’s usually not until a plane falls out of the sky that key flaws and mistakes are discovered … and fixed. In the meantime, people continue flying all day, every day. In some cases, traveling to destination where they'll gladly spend money and time shark diving or fishing. All the while, appreciating, valuing, enjoying … caring about natural resources.

It's called Hollywood for a Reason …

With the collective media, responsibility is more of a portrayal issue than one of exploitation; something a little easier to define as right or wrong. Pop culture has demanded its perenial garden variety, fantastical, portrayals of sharks in the movies with straight-to-DVD titles like, ‘Spring Break Shark Attack’, ‘Blood Surf’ and ‘Raging Sharks’. That last one boasts this plot line: 'An alien’s cold fusion generator falls into the Bermuda Triangle, after which, crystals escape from the generator, only to be eaten by sharks, which are then driven into a frenzied attack on anything that moves'. Who else can’t wait to miss that one? If you think that's actually real, and you give it much more credit than the skanky couch cruising fodder that it is, then you really don’t have an opinion, but I’d be happy to give you one. Come on. It’s fake! Yes, like Pamela Anderson’s boobs, fake. People still like to look, but let’s not give ‘em any more credit than they’re worth. It's not unreasonable to guess that most of those movies probably cost about as much to make as a pair of Pam’s blams. Anyway. Whatever … NEXT!

What about those dramatic reenactments, such as those produced and distributed on Discovery Channel's Shark Week this year? The 22nd season of one of the most watched, and highly rated series in television history kicked off with ‘Blood in the Water’. That really upset some (well, a few) people, but that portrayal was based on actual, factual and well-documented events that happened in 1916. ‘Blood’ portrayed certain species of sharks as ‘man-eaters’ during a period when there was very little known about them, beyond their enigmatic sea monster reputation. Ok … ? I’m not a marine biologist, but I actually did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express. More than once. Certain species of sharks are perfectly adapted, capable of, and designed to attack, dismantle, and yes, consume large prey items, including human beings, from time to time. I read the book, ‘Close to Shore’, that the ‘Blood in the Water’ program was based on when it came out during the gratuitously sensationalized ‘Summer of the Shark’ in 2001.

More on that in a minute, but just a thought here, I don't remember much about the author, Michael Capuzzo, being tarred and feathered for his textual portrayal of the exact same true story. Then again, less and less people are reading, let alone reading between the lines, these days. Sometimes, real life and what happens while living it can get pretty nasty and unpleasant. Factually based reenactments about everything from crime, war, natural disasters and survival stories flood the market. Lions, tigers and bears … oh, why ... why do sharks get such a bad rap when dogs and bee stings kill more people than all those apex predators combined? Because they’re sharks! Sharks kick ass. They always have, and always will. Call me crazy, but sharks are more understood and respected than they were just a mere 30 years ago, and Discovery Channel, for the most part, has done a commendable job helping to make that happen. I’ve been around long enough to know. Short of putting some computer generated warm and fuzzy fur on the big guy in the gray suit or patenting some way to alter millions of years of flawless predatory evolution, what more should we expect? There’s something to be said for at least being more a part of the solution than the problem.

Talking Heads Too Often Prevail …

I briefly mentioned 2001 as being ‘The Summer of the Shark’. Pretty catchy phrase, huh? Sinister sounding and it gets your attention, right? Statistically 2001 had fewer incidents of injurious shark and human interaction than the preceding year, but in the sweltering months prior to the nine-eleven attacks, we were experiencing what’s referred to in the biz as a slow news cycle. In the massive and well-funded media reporting industry, ‘If it bleeds, It leads'. I’m not downplaying or trivializing any legitimate tragedy that came out of that summer's deaths, but the proportion, style and angle of reporting that came on the heels of those misfortunes was astoundingly misleading and inacurate. It hasn’t changed much since.

Errant sensationalism will never disappear altogether, but we can and should work to at least minimize gratuitous and fantastic portrayal in any form -- other than entertainment-based fiction and fantasy. That crap just is, and always will be, exactly what it is. Crap. But beating the talking heads at the anchor desk and journalists at large without leverage isn’t the way. There's got to be a journalism and reporting code of ethics or standards of practice floating around somewhere. Maybe it's something we could whip out and occasionally use like a rolled up newspaper to house train a dog. The common denominator that's conspicuously absent in a growing number of citable instances in reporting is a sense of responsibility to the general, viewing and consuming public to deliver the facts. I know. Benefit of the doubt for dogs that piss on the floor. Until they know it's wrong, how can they be blamed?

It comes down to supply and demand. People want their sharks. Some of us are in the business of delivering them on screen, outside a cage, next to you in the water or on the end of a line. Just like crappy movies, brainless television content, or the illicit drug trade, who do you blame? The supplier or the buyer? It's a question you can't answer because it's all just too subjective. One person's trash is just another's pleasure, but one thing's for sure. Where there are enough willing buyers, you'll find eager manufacture and distribution channels. Sharks themselves are the natural, albeit, innocent cause of a timeless human fascination and instinctive fear; two tried and tested buying impulses. Fortunately, amidst all the white noise, there are those of us with a responsible sense of what it means to deliver the right message, to positively exploit wildlife for its own good. Don't let up now.

Just Thinking Out Loud ...

The power and ability to influence many rests with a few, and therein lies the responsibility; not just for Hollywood and CNN, but recreational anglers, dive operators, the latest conservation club or anyone with a voice, really. It's a wringing twist on an old saying. In this case, it's, Garbage Out - Garbage In. Out of the media, and shark-driven industries themselves, and in to the minds and consciousness of Joe Consumer, John Q. Public, legislative bodies and policy makers. If more energy, focus and cooperation are spent on what we have at least some control over, who knows? With that, I’m extending a notion to others in the shark-delivery business, including anyone wrapping themsevles in the cloak of conservation, to look inside and then across the aisle to see what we might do in a collaborative manner to encourage, not discourage. Hocus-Focus, Fish Bones Choke Us.

And to the reporting media, I issue a personal challenge. Reach out to those of us actively involved and engaged in the reality of a lot of the shark news you’re not reporting enough of. Amongst our ranks, you'll find responsible, credible and non-threatening sources of important information, and real, hands-on experience to share with your audience. Don't worry about the ratings. We'll take care of that part. Try something new for just a little while. An experiment, to see what happens. Try letting some facts get in the way of that next easily sensationalized, push-button portrayal disguised as a news story about sharks and people. Call me and we'll get it going together. Here's my cell: 941-416-1788.