Written by: Catalyst Communications on behalf of Lesley Rochat
From entangling herself naked in fishing nets to free-diving with sharks, South African marine conservationist Lesley Rochat has set out to prove that sharks are not the evil man-eating predators we perceive them to be, but an extremely threatened and important part of the marine eco-system.
Known as the “Shark Warrior”, Lesley Rochat has travelled all over the world, free diving with sharks to film and photograph the experience for her shark awareness campaign; Rethink the Shark.
Frustrated by public and government inertia about shark conservation, Lesley Rochat has now stripped naked for a poster to raise awareness for anti shark-net awareness. Though this passionate campaigner has gone to all kinds of extreme lengths to raise awareness, it was the first time she went totally naked, tying herself up in gill netting, to make a point as visually powerful as possible.
“I have proudly joined women who have through the ages gone naked to protest against numerous issues of concern. For example, women have gone naked against bull fighting, against war, against the fur trade, and now against the senseless slaughter of our sharks and other marine life in the KwaZulu Natal shark nets in South Africa.”
Sharks are being killed at an alarming rate (over 70 million sharks a year) and most are caught by long line vessels that trail up to 140km lines with over 2 500 hooks attached. The demand for sharks parts, in particular their fins (the most expensive fish product in the world) is increasing to satisfy the palette of the elite in a broth called shark fin soup. How their fins are obtained is one of the most cruel, barbaric and wasteful practices whereby sharks are finned alive and then thrown overboard to die a slow and cruel death. Even in South African waters, shark finning is happening daily, people are just not aware of it.
Lesley visited Florida recently as part of her research in areas of high shark attack frequency. Although Florida is known as the ‘shark bite capital’ of the world, no shark nets are placed to protect bathers. South Africa, however, still has shark nets lining sections of its coast, which indiscriminately kill many sharks and other innocent marine animals every year.
“These nets are wiping out our tiger shark population, which people come from all over the world to dive with. They are of high value in the shark diving eco-tourism industry. Florida, despite its high shark attack statistics is a very positive example for South Africa to follow,” said Lesley.
From Florida Lesley set sail on the Dolphin Dream vessel for Tiger Beach, a dive site in the Bahamas. As part of her campaign Lesley free dived with large tiger sharks at Tiger Beach. “It’s important for me to walk my talk and show people that sharks are not monster man-eaters with insatiable appetites for humans, but rather beautiful animals we ought to respect and protect,” she said.
The Rethink the Shark campaign highlights that on average less than 10 people are killed by sharks every year while more people are killed each year by faulty toasters or by falling off chairs.
Tiger sharks are considered the second most dangerous shark in the world and free diving with them was a new experience for Lesley: “Because of all the bad publicity tiger sharks have received over the years, I felt vulnerable but the second I dove down and swam beside a beautiful tiger shark, my fear dissolved, replaced with the simple joy of being free with the animals I love so much – they really are very badly misunderstood. They need all the help they can get,” said Lesley.
“It’s time to ‘Rethink the Shark’, and to rethink who the real predator is,” explains Lesley.
“Though there might be nothing more terrifying than the cry of ‘Shark’ when swimming in the ocean, if sharks could speak, they would all be shouting ‘People!’ Populations are plummeting around the world and already 110 species of sharks on the international Red List are threatened with extinction. For all their perceived menace, sharks are extremely fragile and in deep trouble.”
Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of the marine ecosystems and oceans denuded of them will have severe repercussion on the millions of people that depend upon the oceans for food. Scientific reports project the collapse of all fisheries by the year 2050, and as fish stocks decline shark catches are on the increase. Sharks are good indicators of the health of the oceans, but despite their importance in the marine food-chain, they remain a low conservation priority.
“Their future survival depends largely upon those in power supporting the conservation efforts of organizations and scientists and to changing fishing practices, limiting catches, banning finning, severely prosecuting perpetrators, protecting endangered species, creating more marine protected areas and shark sanctuary areas, and enforcing all of the above,” concludes Lesley.