Advocacy through Art: ‘Shark’ Brings the Animal’s Plight to Life

Happy Shark Week! In honor of this annual event, we sunk our teeth into a new book, Shark, by our friend and partner Brian Skerry. Skerry is an award-winning National Geographic photographer and photojournalist who won the 2017 Rolex-Explorer of the Year award. He recently spoke at the United Nations about the importance of ocean conservation and photographed former president Barack Obama swimming in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument – the largest marine monument in the U.S. Pacific. Per his usual style, Skerry is currently off on a month-long expedition shooting for the magazine.

Flipping through the pages of Shark, a layered and complex view of sharks is presented. Beautiful photos show sharks as powerful, elegant, and sleek creatures. Rulers of the ecosystem, they glide across the pages. Some of the photos are so close up, you cannot imagine how Skerry got the shot. But there are also images that show how sharks are losing control of their domain – often at the hand of humans. There is a shark stuck in a fisherman’s net, its eye forlornly looking out through the page. There is a shark on a beach with its fin being cut off, a victim of still-too-common shark finning. Mixed within the images, Skerry writes about his work, the environment, and the role of sharks in the wild.

Sharks are the top of the food chain, making them apex predators. Like wolves in Yellowstone, sharks are vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. When sharks are present, it’s a sign the ecosystem is working as it should.

But sharks occupy fragile standing in the world right now. Globally, more than 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins alone. Sharks not directly targeted are often victims of bycatch, trapped on hooks or in lines meant for other fish. Sharks that survive these dangers, though, are still living in a changing world. Ocean acidification is harming reefs which provide food and shelter for the sharks’ prey. Climate change, and the resulting warming ocean has the potential to decimate a population that has not had to adapt for thousands of years.

Why Sharks?

Skerry has spent countless hours photographing sharks underwater. Part of his desire to write a book about sharks comes from wanting to show the world that sharks more than they appear in Jaws or the typical Discovery shark attack show. In an interview with National Geographic, he says, “For the artist within me, sharks represent an endless well of inspiration, a blend of grace and power that lures me into the sea time and time again in hopes of producing a new rendering that truly captures their essence. As a journalist, I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and a sense of the urgent need to broadcast that sharks are in trouble and need our help.”

You could say that Skerry views himself as more than an underwater photographer; he is an ocean advocate, using images to convey his message. Skerry, a New England native, believes that we need to fully protect more of the marine environment, and he was supportive of the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

When interviewed for Boston Magazine, he said, “Protecting the environment should not be, and historically in this country has not been, a partisan issue…If I could get our new president to see these things and care about them and realize how important they are for business and industry and commerce and weather and everything else that matters, then, boy, wouldn’t that be great?”

While it is unclear if the Trump Administration will be a willing audience, you can start to learn more about the issues yourself and become an advocate. You can find Shark online or at your local bookstore. Skerry’s photos are also on display as part of an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., until October 1.

You can also take action here to preserve the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, currently under attack by the Trump Administration. The monument is free from human threats and provides a space for sharks to find food and shelter. 

Marine Reserves are Climate Reserves – and We Need More of Them

I’m riding on a small ferry to an island off the coast of Maine when the captain suddenly slows the boat. He comes over the loudspeaker and speaks in a quiet voice. “On the left of the boat, next to the rocks is an Atlantic Puffin,” he says. Craning our necks, my fellow passengers and I look out on the sparkling blue water and there next to the seaweed covered rocks is a lone puffin bobbing in the water.

Puffins had nearly disappeared from the Gulf of Maine until restoration efforts in the late 1900s successfully restored colonies on the Maine islands. In the past, the greatest threat to puffins was hunting, but now they face a new threat: global climate change. The Gulf of Maine is warming at a faster rate than almost any other ocean ecosystem on Earth. This is bad news for puffins and the 3,000 other marine species who rely on the Gulf waters for food and habitat.

Scientists have been researching ways to slow climate change or at least mitigate its impacts. One new study shows that marine reserves allow ecosystems to adapt and be resilient to the major predicted impacts of climate change: acidification, sea-level rise, more intense storms, shifts in species distribution, and decreased productivity and oxygen availability.

Marine reserves are a type of marine protected area where all activities such as fishing, bottom trawling, fracking, and drilling are prohibited (though minimal amounts of low-impact fishing may still be allowed). Currently, only 3.5 percent of the world’s ocean has some level of protection, with just 1.6 percent fully protected. International scientists agree that by 2030 we need to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean.

According to the study, marine reserves can help combat climate change impacts in a couple of different ways.

Tackling Ocean Acidification

One of the biggest threats to the ocean is acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when excess carbon dioxide enters the water from the air. The carbon dioxide changes the water’s chemistry, making it more acidic. Marine reserves can help the ocean’s resiliency to acidification by capturing and storing carbon in protected wetlands and by creating a stronger buffer against carbon offshore.

Wetlands in particular are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for hundreds of years. Wetlands can also provide refuge, breeding grounds, and nursery hotspots for many types of organisms. Additionally, protected wetlands can help mitigate two other impacts of climate change – sea level rise and intensification of storms – by providing an important physical buffer between the ocean and seaside communities.

In offshore marine reserves, ocean acidification is combated by increasing fish stocks. Teleost fish (also known as bony fish, which comprise about 96 percent of all fish) produce a chemical that acts as a buffer and counteracts some of the added carbon. This is not enough to stop ocean acidification – but the more fish in the ocean, the greater the buffer. Currently, there are fewer fish in the ocean worldwide due to overfishing and human activities that hurt fish habitat and breeding grounds. Past research shows that well-managed marine reserves increase fish populations and promote habitat recovery.

Helping Species Adapt

The new study also shows how marine reserves help species adapt to climate change. One of the biggest challenges that climate change poses is that habitats are changing faster than species can adapt. Marine reserves can help this challenge by increasing gene flow and providing refuge.

Typically, marine reserves give fish and other marine life populations the opportunity to grow, which creates more gene variation within the population. A larger gene pool increases the chance of adaptations that would benefit the population. Most supporters of protected areas advocate for a network of marine reserves that connect different populations and help facilitate gene flow.

As the climate changes many organisms find themselves needing to migrate to find better conditions. Marine reserves can act as a stepping stone for species on the move due to rising water temperatures. For organisms that cannot move, like coral, marine reserves allow for possible refuge.

For the Future

Creating marine reserves requires stakeholder participation and it can be difficult to facilitate different interest groups. However, the environmental and economic benefits are huge. Marine reserves are low technology and cost effective. Positive effects from creating more well-managed marine reserves would be seen from the local to global scale.

Marine reserves are by no means the sole solution to climate change. Ultimately, as a society, we must reduce climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. But the creation of more well-managed marine reserves can help with climate resiliency. Especially for the puffins, the lobster, and all of us in the Gulf of Maine who rely on a healthy ocean, the creation of more protected spaces is something that we must focus on – now.

New England has its own fully protected marine reserve, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – and it needs your help. Right now, it’s under attack by the Trump Administration, which is “reviewing” marine monuments and sanctuaries to gauge whether they will open them up to destructive oil and gas drilling. Take action today: Sign your name to let the administration know that our marine national monument protects our ocean treasures and must remain in place exactly as they are.