As I checked into my flight recently at Panama’s International Airport, I was asked a slew of security questions, where I revealed that I am a biologist. When pressed for what form of biology I dedicate time to, I shared “sharks”. Inciting a gasp from the agent. “Hey, sharks are amazing, beautiful creatures” I countered. “Keep me far away from them…” said the ticket agent. I couldn’t resist. I whipped out my phone to share a few pictures and videos (always handy, along with several show and tell sharks teeth) – much to the consternation of my fellow travelers waiting behind me in line. Moments later, I could tell that I had clearly moved the needle on the Shark-Fear-O-Meter from TERRIFIED to SKEPTICAL, and might I say, even into the realm of INQUISITIVE. She even shared some of her new knowledge with the nearby baggage handler, who looked at me with a mix of incredulity and surprise. And then smiled broadly.
Although I am not religious, I think I am starting to understand missionaries and their quest, nay zeal, to convert or “save” souls. In all honesty, I am little different in my approach when it comes to elasmovangelizing people. My hoped-for end result is to generate a better understanding and even support for the PR-challenged sharks and rays, collectively known as elasmobranchs. Casual chats with people from all sectors of life are one of several means to lead to a hoped-for reversal in the dramatic declines in elasmo numbers. The causes of decline are many but overwhelmingly due to overfishing. The demand for shark and ray products is fueled by multiple sectors and businesses: fins for soup, meat for human food, pet food, cosmetics, joint medicine, boat waterproofing, curios and so much more. Yet, I have often wondered about the long-term effect of my elasmovangelizing, notably in light of my growing interest in behavioral change theory and practices linked to education and conservation. Fortunately, I got an answer sooner than expected.
During the following trip to Panama’s international airport, Mauricio, the taxi driver I often hire to take me to the airport confessed that he had been fishing a couple of weekends ago. He kept his eyes on the road while he shared, in a smaller voice, that he had caught two hammerhead sharks. He described them well, leading me to think these belonged to the scalloped or great hammerhead shark clans. To describe their size, he took his hands off the steering wheel. Apparently, he didn’t ascribe to the usual fisher tall tales, as the animals weren’t a whole heck of a lot larger than the wheel. I jumped up and down in the passenger seat. For those who know me, there’s nothing sedate about my excitement at a new finding. Thankfully, we didn’t crash the car. The hammers’ small size indicated their recently born (neonate) status… in an area never previously pegged as a shark nursery. All I could utter was a “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH THE HAMMERS?”. He looked at me slyly, grinned, and then said “I remembered what you had told me last time I took you to the airport, about how these guys are endangered, and when small are most likely babies, so we released them…”. It was a first for him and his fishing partner. And that’s not all. He now wants one of our CSI kits (Collaborative Shark Investigator) so he can go back, catch hammers with a purpose, contribute to science and spread the elasmogospel to generate pride and excitement with his friends to do exactly the same. And that is how we can change hearts and minds and move the needle for sharks. One soul at a time.