Shifting Baselines

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Burt Jones & Maurine ShimlockOur dear friend, the webmaster for Undercurrent has been complaining about his empty blog queue.  Burt and I have been busy with personal stuff rather than the scuba world because we just moved across the US to a new home. But, I haven’t written a blog in months, so I thought I would write about something personal.  Here’s the story.

We’re decorating our new home.  It’s been like Christmas for the past week as we unpacked cartons of things not seen for nearly a decade.  The last few boxes moved into our storage locker directly from our first Mexico incarnation, when we lived south of Cancun from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. One of the largest boxes contained quite a few non-PC items in today’s world: two hawksbill turtle shells, an impressive shark’s jaw (probably grey reef), two green turtle skulls, one with the lower jaw intact, two meter-plus-long bills from saw tooth sharks, numerous other marine-related vertebra, and one dolphin skull with upper bill.  We found most of the parts while beach combing or snorkeling, and I have little remorse about having kept them. But we did buy the shark’s jaw and saw tooth bills from fishermen back in the ’70s. We thought they were very cool and displayed them on our living room wall. From my 2012 perspective these remnants of endangered species make me very sad and have no place in our home.

Around 1978 or so, a group of shark fishers moved into our little village, which was located a few kilometers south of Cancun. Before dawn they took small skiffs out beyond the reef to recover the night’s catch and reset their long lines.  For about six months they pulled in almost every species of shark that existed in the Caribbean, the prize being half a dozen or so saw tooth sharks.  Most mornings we’d take a walk along the beach and strike up a friendly conversation with the returning fishermen. Just about everyone in the village would be out too, mainly because, like us, they wanted to know how many sharks had been killed the night before. To see all of those sharks lying on the sand was an education itself.   I remember the first time I touched their rough skin, felt the sharp teeth, admired their sleek lines.  But I do not remember me or anyone in the village feeling sad about the dead sharks.

Back then we spearfished on snorkel and had a healthy respect and a bit of fear of sharks.  More than once we’d given up our catch to a shark that spooked us after a kill. Even though we lived with the ocean at our doorstep, neither we nor anyone in our village understood how it all worked, especially how vulnerable its integrated habitats were once a major predator had been wiped out. Apparently neither did the shark fishermen. In less than a year they had moved on.  I’m not sure if or where they found more sharks, but they certainly decimated them in our area.  We didn’t know exactly why our reef system collapsed over the next decade, there were many possibilities:  A red tide followed several massive hurricanes, mangroves up and down the coast were drained for resort development, and commercial fishing wiped out vulnerable reef species like snapper and grouper, trying to meet the demands of the growing tourism industry. Shark sightings became increasingly rare.

Fast forward to 2012.  Some 35 years on and we have done our homework.  We’ve dived across the globe and borne witness to the world’s failing shark populations. Since 2008 we have been sustainable marine tourism consultants for Conservation International in Raja Ampat.  The entire 18,000 square miles of Raja Ampat was declared a shark sanctuary late in 2010.  But as early as 2006, up in the Kawe MPA, a remote and uninhabited area of northern Raja, traditional leaders supported by CI staff took even stronger action.  Fed up with fish poachers and reef bombers from other regions coming to their traditional fishing grounds and destroying their reefs, the folks who are in charge of Kawe decided to declare a near 100% no take zone, the largest within the multi-nation Coral Triangle. Six years later their fish populations, including sharks, were recovering very nicely. Then in May, a serious shark finning operation set up in one of the most far-flung corners of the Kawe MPA.  Within a day, community patrol members contacted CI’s Raja Ampat office. Enforcements, including an Indonesian naval officer, set out for the MPA. They accosted seven shark fishing vessels and 40 crewmembers.  All of the illegal long line gear, catch, documents, compressors, etc. were seized. Unfortunately the poachers escaped in their boats; seven conservationists and a lone military officer in a small speedboat were simply outnumbered.

The point here is that local people fought to preserve what they consider to be theirs.  The shark poachers targeted the Kawe MPA because the villagers’ efforts had been successful.  In other words, if there hadn’t been quite a few sharks around, there would not have been a reason for the poachers to be in Kawe.  In the words of Brahm Goram, CI’s outreach and engagement coordinator for the Bird’s Head Seascape, “the Kawe MPA is 100 percent managed by well-trained and highly capable local villagers… For six years, the communities have carefully guarded this area, working with local police to regularly run joint patrols… And they were starting to see results. Previously bombed reefs were recovering with new coral growth, and my friends from the Kawe MPA field station boasted about the abundance of baby sharks swimming in front of their dock.   The people of the Kawe tribe had set aside this area for the benefit of their children. They guard it with passion because it is theirs…”

One huge difference between our Mexican village and the people who set aside the Kawe MPA is that stewardship of the land and ocean are a big part of the Melanesian culture. Another, of course, is the enlightenment that 35 years has brought to our understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.  Baselines shift, and now conservation organizations worldwide have recognized that local communities must be empowered if their resources are to be protected.  Our Mexican reef has been declared a national park and no fishing is allowed.  I have heard that the marine life has recovered somewhat, but even after two decades, very few sharks patrol the reefs.

Out in the Kawe MPA the villagers remember life without sharks and without healthy reefs.  They don’t want to go there again and will use every resource they can muster to protect their MPA.  Their challenge is to secure long term funding for reinforced patrols.  The good news is that an understanding of sharks’ importance to the overall health of reefs, and ultimately how important healthy, thriving reefs are to our planet has been incorporated into our collective psyches.

By the way, we plan to donate all of the marine life remains to a local school, hoping to inspire the next generation to become worthy stewards of the marine world.

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5 comments for “Shifting Baselines

  1. Bret Gilliam
    June 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I share some of the same regrets about the past. Mine are mostly about spearfishing though. From 1971 to 1974 I was on the Virgin Islands competitive freediving spearfishing team including going the world championship in St. Maarten in 1974 where I shot the largest fish… a 38-lb. barracuda. Earlier in the year I had speared a 27-lb. tiger grouper that was a world record. When I got that grouper I was consumed with guilt even though I stalked it in deep water (120 feet) holding my breath and later ate it… all in keeping with the credo of “sportsmanship” at the time. My teammates told me that I shouldn’t feel bad; that my catch was a major accomplishment. But all I could see was a dead fish that could have been a friend to me if I was in the water scuba diving with my camera. When I shot the barracuda and it was hung with wild enthusiasm on the rack surrounded a cheering international crowd of other competitors, all I could feel was revulsion. I went back to my hotel room and got sick. The next morning I threw away all my spearfishing equipment and have never shot a fish or caught one on a line since. I deeply regret that I didn’t come to this sensibility earlier but I’m glad that finally did.

    The early days of diving were focused on spearfishing. I’m glad that we all matured and turned our interests to filming and journalism projects as the mark of a truly committed diver. I wish I could turn back the clock and welcome all the fish back that I killed. I hope they can somehow forgive me. For I am truly sorry and deeply ashamed.

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  2. Claudia R. Drucker
    June 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    … and so the education continues….obviously we “all” have evolved.. and grown. Thank goodness for our evolution and willingness to SHARE these experiences so others who never will see what WAS THERE years ago know what was… and what can and will be.

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  3. maurine shimlock
    June 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Bret, do your best to not feel that guilty. Some guilt shows that you’re human, but then it is also very human to stalk and kill something to eat. I know that idea has become lost in a sea of plastic wrap, but it is still engrained in our collective psyche. It’s the idea of killing marine life or any animal for a trophy, to enhance virility, etc., that resonates negatively in today’s world. What I was trying to get across is that al to of us have had similar experiences in the past, but in 2012 there are whole communities out there who are working together to protect their reefs. I’m proud of the people in Raja Ampat who care enough about their marine life to defend it against armed shark poachers.

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  4. Ann Keller
    June 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Maurine,
    I had a dream/nightmare the other night. I was diving with zillions of sharks and my video camera had flooded. You can guess which part was the dream and which was the nightmare.
    Thank you for such an eloquent blog.

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  5. ozarkdiver
    October 24, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Bret, I agree with not spearfishing for trophies. But are you opposed to spearfishing for food? In a non-protected area?

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