Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Social Media Savvy Shark Stanley Swims to Turks & Caicos

Guest Blog
by Tina Randall & Jackie Walker

Do you have children in the school system here in the wonderful Turks and Caicos Islands? If so, they might have shown you a self-colored picture of a cartoon shark named Stanley and explained to you why healthy coral reefs need sharks. Or maybe you are visiting the TCI and would like to know more about the creatures that live beneath these turquoise waters and what you can do to help protect them. Either way, you should get acquainted with Shark Stanley and his new friends on the island and learn why sharks are important.

Who exactly is Shark Stanley? Stanley is the face of the global shark awareness campaign dedicated to creating shark sanctuaries and supporting the proper management of sharks and rays. Shark Stanley is the brainchild of former Yale grad student Leah Meth and shark conservationist Angelo Villagomez from The Pew Charitable Trusts. They produced a book The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends in which several shark characters team up with kids to protect sharks. He has more than a dozen friends, including a lemon shark from TCI! An updated version of the book is being released in March 2015.

One of the big lessons Shark Stanley teachers is that healthy reefs need sharks. What does a shark have to do with coral reefs? Everything! Jackie Walker at Amanyara’s Nature Discovery Center along with Amy Avenant at DEMA and other individuals are working with Stanley to increase public awareness on why sharks are important to the ocean and to The TCI. Students at Osetta Jolly Primary School, Provo Primary School, British West Indies Collegiate, and TCI Middle School have listened to Stanley's book and learned about sharks in TCI's waters. The student's perception of sharks went from a fearful, “sharks are scary, they eat humans," to a more appreciative, "sharks eat fish for balance, they save the ocean." That is quite a change! The lessons also struck a chord with a teacher at Provo Primary School who said afterwards, "as someone who is slowly getting over a fear of the ocean and sharks in particular, this is something I really want to get involved with."

Shark Stanley has also been swimming about the island to various events and locations taking ‘selfies’ in the community. He has been to Long Bay, Blue Hills, and even trick-or-treating! He handed out wristbands and read his book to excited children with Santa. It is not every day that you get the opportunity to hug a happy hammerhead and tweet @tcisharks or instagram #tcisharks. Shark Stanley is trying to change the global perception of sharks and to teach people to appreciate what sharks do in an ocean that humans so heavily depend on.

Stanley also teaches us about the top predator’s key role in the marine ecosystem. Sharks have been around for 450 million years and the ocean needs them. Healthy and biologically diverse shark populations are important to maintain the balance of marine life, including commercially important species that end up on our dinner plates. Ecosystems function as a check and balance system; things can get out of balance if you take out an important piece of the puzzle. Sharks keep fish populations in check and with their varied diet help to maintain the biodiversity coral reefs support. Algae would smother and kill the coral reef if sharks didn’t control the food chain; specifically both the carnivorous and herbivorous fish below them. No tourist wants to snorkel or dive on a reef overcome with algae, or one that is no longer alive.

Talking with marine biologists and experts in the field that have recently visited TCI, we have learned that many places around the world are experiencing a decline in shark populations, including here in the TCI. We still see sharks on almost every dive here, but their populations are a far cry from what they used to be. Scientists estimate that over 100 million sharks are killed every year in commercial fisheries. Nearly 30 percent of known shark species fully assessed by scientists are threatened with extinction and another 26 percent close to becoming threatened in the near future. The global shark population decline is immense; before we know it we will no longer get to experience these magnificent and humbling animals in our oceans and will be left with the consequences of an unbalanced marine ecosystem.

The TCI has the opportunity to be a part of the global movement to save sharks. To date, nine countries and overseas territories have created shark sanctuaries, ending the commercial fishing of sharks in their waters. Will you join us? You can show your support by getting involved with Shark Stanley and posting your ‘selfie’ to social networks with the hashtag #SharkStanley and #TCIsharks.

Another way to get involved in shark conservation in TCI is to come get inspired by international shark conservationist Rob Stewart when he comes to Providenciales March 26-March 28, 2015 for a Shark Weekend. Rob is an award winning wildlife photographer and director of the documentary Sharkwater (2007). This film is a visually stunning, eye-opening film that takes you on a journey to the most shark rich waters and exposes the exploitation and corruption surrounding the marine reserves they belong to. The film has won 31 international awards and is a powerful piece that leads us into the discussion of shark conservation for the future of the oceans.

Rob will visit select local schools to engage students and increase awareness about sharks. He will partake in a community conservation luncheon, an exclusive documentary screening at Amanyara and go scuba diving with local reef club student members to educate on community conservation and involvement. Don’t miss Rob’s special community event on Saturday March 28th, 2015. This special conservation presentation and screening of the documentary Sharkwater will be open to the public, taking place at Brayton Hall at 7:00pm. Tickets are available in advance or at the door.

For more information on this Shark Weekend please contact jwalker@amanresorts.com. Shark weekend is supported by DEMA, Amanyara Resport, BWIC, Edward Gartland Youth Centre, and Big Blue Unlimited. You can get involved! To learn more about Shark Stanley and his cause you can visit SharkStanley.com or visit the Facebook page Caribbean Shark Defenders, Tweet @tcisharks, Instagram #tcisharks, or write a support letter about why you love sharks and why they need our help and send it to tina@pacificu.edu. Keep an eye out for Shark Stanley at schools and events and take the time to learn about why you should care about sharks, why they are important for everyone and how you can get involved in their conservation.

Tina Randall lives in the Turks & Caicos Islands and has a BSc. Environmental Biology. She is TCI's Shark Stanley Ambassador. You can follow her adventures saving sharks in the Caribbean on Twitter.
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