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June 11, 2007

Cousteau: It's a Shark's LIfe

Famed ocean explorer shares his concerns about the world's shark populations

The Humane Society of the United States

By John Balzar

With his head of shimmering silver hair and his sleek blue dive suit, he looks every bit the WaterMan.

In fact, he is.

By lineage and by inclination, wet or dry, Jean-Michel Cousteau has become more closely identified than any other human with the world's oceans and the creatures of the deep.

Awhile back, I had the privilege of diving with Cousteau in the warm, crystalline waters of Fiji. We spent 10 days exploring the brilliant underwater reefs, the swaying soft-coral canyons and the tidal currents that swept across the lagoons of this Pacific fantasyland.

When we surfaced, Jean-Michel would talk about what we had seen. He wore an expression of perpetual amazement at having to reconcile the beauty and seeming abundance with an awful truth—as vast as the oceans are, they are so frightfully fragile.

His metaphor of choice was the great predator of the sea, the shark. What creature was stronger? What animal anywhere was so indomitable? But just look, he would say. Look at what is happening to the great sharks. We humans are killing them off—11,000 of them an hour, around the clock, 365 days a year.

Along with Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, The Humane Society of the United States is a leader in the campaign to change American perceptions of these mighty creatures—in hopes of saving them before it's too late. In particular, The HSUS demands an end to the grotesque spectacle of shark fishing tournaments. What could be worse than driving majestic animals to the brink of extinction and then gloating about it at dockside ceremonies?

I recently spoke with Jean-Michel about the plight of the shark: 

John Balzar/The HSUS: Sharks are in jeopardy. How serious is the threat?

Cousteau: It's larger than people believe. Sharks by the millions are being killed for nothing more than their fins, their bleeding bodies thrown back into the ocean alive. It's a moral crisis. And in my opinion, it's criminal.

Sharks are scavengers. Along with other creatures, they keep the oceans clean. Their role is absolutely critical. In eliminating them, we are hurting ourselves, of course. It's another big step in the destruction of our oceans.

HSUS: Sharks, of course, still have an image problem don't they?

Cousteau: After "Jaws," Peter Benchley spent the rest of his life trying to undo the picture of sharks that he created. He failed, just as I have failed.

Again, I say, it's not just for the sharks. It's for us.

HSUS: Fishing tournaments that target sharks seem particularly abhorrent. How do you view these bloody spectacles?

Cousteau: They should be illegal. Period.

Think of it like an airliner. You can remove a rivet and the plane still flies. You can remove another and another. But some point when you are sitting in your seat flying along, the whole plane is going to fall apart.

Nature doesn't care. There will be a nature after the airplane blows apart. But will there be an us?

You cannot keep taking rivets out like this.

HSUS: You have made two films, "Sharks 3D" and "Sharks at Risk," that seek to change minds about sharks. This has long been a goal of The HSUS and its Protect Sharks Campaign. How much progress are we making in replacing fear with concern?

Cousteau: I don't want to be overly cynical. But people with jobs and schedules and commutes, we cannot count on them.

We need to focus on young people. That's part of the answer, and I know that it works.

Another part: grandparents. They are relatively young still today. Some have resources. All of them have something they can dispense in great quantities: love for their grandchildren and concern for the world we're leaving them.

Read more about Jean-Michel and his work at oceanfutures.org

John Balzar is senior vice president of communications for The Humane Society of the United States

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