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SCCF Launches Shark Conservation Campaign

Nurse shark.
Nurse shark.

In an effort to highlight the role sharks play in our coastal ecosystem as well as the fragility of the species, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation launched its first shark conservation campaign this week.

WGCU's Andrea Perdomo spoke with The foundation’s CEO, Ryan Orgera about SCCF’s efforts to educate the community about sharks.

Here is an excerpt of their conservation:

Perdomo:

Ryan, can you tell me a little bit about the Sanibel and Captiva Conservation Foundation's shark conservation campaign?

Orgera:

Sure. SCCF has a rich history of conservation in this region starting in 1967, so this is our 53rd year of protecting this paradise. Well, part of that beyond what we've done to protect so much land here, we've decided to focus increasingly on those issues that affect our islands from the outside and part of that is our continued research on water quality, on sea grass, on mangroves, but also our work on sea turtles and shorebirds.

And increasingly, we're seeing sharks part of a cultural understanding that they are now in need more than ever. We have a relatively healthy population of sharks in Southwest Florida. Globally, however, and even over historical trends, there's a crisis going on. We decided to turn our attention to shark conservation principally because recreational shark fishing is becoming more and more popular, and that is not inherently a problem. However, what we're seeing is that there are more and more people participating in this activity who are undereducated on how they should be handling sharks, how they should be successfully fishing for sharks, and releasing them to maximize the chance of their survival upon release.

So, we're focusing really on educated people on the importance of sharks in the ecosystem, in culture, and in our food webs. But also educating anglers on how to ensure that their activities are not endangering sharks in the region.

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
Great hammerhead shark

Perdomo:

You mentioned that SCCF covers a wide range of things, like everything from sea grass to protecting different marine animals. Is this the first effort to bring the importance of sharks into the spotlight?

Orgera:

It is. For SCCF, this is the first time we've worked on sharks. Part of that is my background is in shark conservation, and so when I saw an opportunity to continue that work on shark conservation, this seemed like the perfect time and venue to do it.

Perdomo:

What role do sharks play in our coastal ecosystem?

Orgera:

So, many of the sharks-- really the kind of the classic sharks we picture, the large body sharks, they tend to be apex predators within a food web, and what's so incredibly important about an apex predator is that they manage balance within a system. For instance, each trophic level is affected by the apex predator. For instance, if there aren't sharks, the next level down we'll say is grouper. All of a sudden, grouper can start to proliferate and then affect the next level down. It's called a trophic cascade. When you remove apex predator from a system, all of a sudden you're creating problems all the way down the chain to plankton in some cases.

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Perdomo:

What are some common misconceptions people have about sharks that you and SCCF would like people to know?

Orgera:

I think one of the most important is that sharks are tough and don't need our help. The truth is sharks are disappearing globally at an alarming rate, and they do in fact need our help. I think one, we want everyone to understand that that sharks need us, and sharks are not these tough man eaters. They don't mindlessly kill people. Secondly, that our fear of sharks is really overblown. In 2012, 810 million people visited beaches in Florida and that same year, there were 28 unprovoked shark attacks.

Our fear of sharks really is overblown. Golf balls kill more people. Bees kill more people. Wild hogs kill more people. Crossing the road kills infinitely more people. Only two people died globally in 2019 from sharks. Our fear is really statistically unfounded, and I think it gets in the way of appreciating these animals and really fighting for their global success.

Perdomo:

Right. And kind of touching on the rarity of shark attacks, movies like Jaws, they make it seem like sharks are a threat to humans. But in our region, are shark attacks common?

Orgera:

Our region, no. Not at all. Actually since the late 1980s, if you would just look at Charlotte, Lee, and Collier County, there have only been 19 confirmed shark attacks and no confirmed fatal shark attacks. That is an incredibly low number given how many people visit our beaches. And, you're absolutely right, movies like Jaws ... in fact, Jaws specifically really was one of the most important moments in American culture where sharks were vilified on such a large scale. Jaws has played an important role, but it wasn't the first time that we saw this on a national scale. We have a long history galeophobia ... is the term for fear of sharks, in the United States. It is unfortunately incredibly unfounded, especially in Southwest Florida.

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
Boaters attempt to remove a fishing hook from a shark.

Perdomo:

What are some things that people can do to make sure that they stay safe while in gulf waters?

Orgera:

Yeah. At a starting point, you already are safe going in. However, there are some things that you can do to lower your risk. Don't swim at dusk. I would suggest not swimming at night either. If you are doing those activities, swim in a group. Never be out there alone. Do not swim with your pet. If you have a dog in the water, research has shown that their movement can be more attractive to sharks, as it's slightly faster and more erratic. Also, make sure you're swimming in clear water. If the water is murky, that means the shark can't see you as well either. They can mistake you for its natural prey. Almost all shark attacks are mistaken identity. There's no proof that I've ever seen that sharks intentionally target humans.

Perdomo:

What are some things that people can do to ensure that sharks are safe?

Orgera:

If you are angling for sharks, make sure that you take the course online that the FWC now requires for shark fishing. Make sure that you're educating yourself on all the regulations, because they're not there to annoy you. They're there to make sure that these sharks are here for the future. Sharks are incredibly slow to reproduce. They're much more like mammals in that way. They don't have a lot--most species of sharks do not have a lot of young. Some only have one every year or two.They are, incredibly slow growing, so it's not like bony fish that spawn sometimes tens of thousand, millions of eggs. This is not at all the same.

If you are angling, if you are fishing for sharks be it on a shore or on a boat, make sure that you are following these FWC guidelines and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA's guidelines for best practices to ensure that there will be sharks for everyone forever. Just make sure that if you are engaged in other shark tourism, like diving with sharks, that you use an eco-conscious operator.

Perdomo:

Great. Will SCCF be revisiting the campaign next year during Shark Week?

Orgera:

Yes. I think this will be an ongoing campaign. This was just the launch. Yes, we will. We are going to help educate our communities and our visitors on the importance of sharks, on the fragility of sharks. And next year, look forward to Shark Week 2.0 for SCCF.

Perdomo:

Where can people go for more information on sharks, and how to safely coexist with them?

Orgera:

SCCF.org is our website, and we have our shark campaign and helpful shark information with links to the appropriate FWC site for anglers and for swimmers. We explore the risks and show some numbers just to help assuage some fears here. To assuage folks that sharks are, in fact, not nearly as dangerous as we're led to believe.

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
Great hammerhead shark.

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Great hammerhead shark
/ The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
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Great hammerhead shark
DCIM\101GOPRO
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DCIM\101GOPRO
Boaters attempt to remove a fishing hook from a shark.
/ Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
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Boaters attempt to remove a fishing hook from a shark.
Great hammerhead shark.
/ Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
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Great hammerhead shark.

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