Shark Conservation, The Ocean Plastic Problem, & The Case For Not Being So Pathetic

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Valerie Taylor once made her living at being a champion spear fisher until the stars of life steered her into a shark conservation mission that has spanned decades. Valerie who? That question will be answered this Friday evening, July 23, when the National Geographic documentary Playing with Sharks unspools on Disney+ as part of its annual SharkFest lineup. In the meantime, no story about shark conservation would be complete without a mention of the efforts under way to fight ocean plastic pollution.

Valerie Taylor Dares You To Not Be So Pathetic

Valerie Taylor first crossed the CleanTechnica radar as a conservationist featured in the Shark Beach documentary hosted by Chris Hemsworth. Playing with Sharks is all about her, and it gives her a chance to really speak her mind.

Taylor sat down with CleanTechnica, director Sally Aitken, and producer Bettina Dalton earlier this month for an interview and she provided some new insights into the person who wore chain mail suits to work (following conversation lightly edited for flow):

CleanTechnica: A question for Valerie Taylor — how would you sum up the state of shark conservation today?

Taylor: The state of conservation today on ocean and on land is pathetic. We continue to cut down rain forests and we continue to rape the ocean of every living thing. We are going to destroy the planet and ourselves.

Sharks are essential to the health of the oceans, which means they are essential to us. If the ocean dies…we’re going to pay a heavy price. I won’t be here to see it but my nephews and nieces will.

The human race is greedy its pathetic and its conservation efforts are [ineffective].

Shark Conservation Is Not For The Faint Of Heart

Okay, so moving right along to the director and producer. Everyone knows that shark bites are gruesome, but very few people are ever bitten by sharks, whereas on the shark conservation side the gruesomeness runs into millions of casualties. Parts of Playing with Sharks are not playful at all, as the documentary nails the shark fin soup industry for its carnage.

CleanTechnica: There are many gruesome scenes in Playing with Sharks. What motivated you to go in this direction?

Aitken: It was all part of the story to tell, both the slaughter of sharks, and shark finning footage. We asked ourselves do we think this is too much or not enough — but if you don’t show it people won’t believe it.

CleanTechnica: Here’s a question for the producer — there are so many women in conservation today. What drew you to this story?

Dalton: I first encountered Valerie when I was a teenager, on the front cover of National Geographic magazine. She was like a Marvel superhero. She influenced a lot of people and she was the catalyst for a whole generation.

She inspired me to become a natural history filmmaker; the impact of her throwing herself into the conservation arena had a massive impact on me and other people. She had a pyramid effect, inspiring us to get close and to care. In the cinema screenings we’ve had, children are coming up to us so inspired and aware.

CleanTechnica: Another question for Ms. Taylor, what changes have you seen in the kinds of people who are interested in conservation?

Taylor: It’s the number of girls who ran out to interview me, and all of them want to save every animal in the ocean. If they said “we hate sharks” I’d probably go away, but it was interesting to listen to them. They were so curious about eels and crabs and everything.

Oceans are 62% of the world, we have to take care of them.

So, What About This Ocean Plastic Problem?

If you want to learn enough about finning to last a lifetime, go see Playing with Sharks. The US and several other nations have banned finning, but smugglers abound and whack-a-mole enforcement leaves plenty of room for bad actors.

That may sound a bit depressing, but solutions are at hand, especially as the rest of the marine economy rallies around shark conservation in order to preserve their own pieces of the pie.

That includes focusing more attention on ocean plastic. The entire marine economy is at risk from ocean plastic pollution, shark conservation or no shark conservation. The problem ranges from microparticles of plastic that become embedded in the food chain, on up to larger plastic items that entangle sea creatures or clog up their digestive systems.

This too is solve-able. Part of the plastic pollution solution involves ditching petrochemicals in favor of biodegradable building blocks. Both gas and oil stakeholders are going to lean harder on the petrochemical market for a lifeline as their share of the power generation and transportation markets shrinks down, but that is another area in which powerful marine economy stakeholders can flex their muscles.

Big brands like StarKist are already in a fight for their lives as canned tuna sales declined precipitously in the US and elsewhere over the past 30 years or so. Lobbying on behalf of plastic free oceans could give these companies a way to engage with today’s environmentally conscious consumers.

The Ocean Plastic Whack-a-Mole

In an interesting twist, StarKist is owned by Dongwon Industries of South Korea, where conservationists have been targeting the shark fin soup industry. Perhaps Dongwon may be inspired to join forces with them. After all, marine health is a matter of life or death for the tuna industry.

Hitching their stars onto the global Plastic Free July campaign would be a good place for Dongwon and other big names in canned fish to start. After all, the canned fish industry depends mainly on recyclable metal packaging, not plastics.

They could also take a cue from the auto industry’s engagement with electric vehicle battery R&D, by providing funds for high level research on ocean plastic, plastic recycling, and sustainable plastic substitutes. Here in the US, the University of Delaware is one hotspot for plastic research that could help alleviate the ocean plastic problem.

Though spent fishing gear accounts for a huge part of the ocean plastic problem, consumers will have to dig more deeply into their own habits if they really want to help. Researchers are uncovering more evidence that simply doing one’s laundry can introduce microparticles into the marine environment. Speaking of the auto industry, just driving around in one’s car can also contribute microparticles.

Speaking more of the auto industry, the long-delayed pivot into electric vehicles has finally reached a tipping point for legacy automakers, as decades of activism meet up with shifts in consumer preferences, a new generation of public policy makers, and the good old fashioned making of a buck. Who’d a thunk that could ever happen?

If all four elements similarly converge on the marine industry, it’s not too late to cure the ocean plastic ills, save the sharks, and enjoy a nice can of sustainably harvested tuna for lunch, too.

More about Valerie Taylor.

More about Plastic Free July.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo (screenshot): Shark conservationist Valerie Taylor courtesy of Disney+.


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