Thomas P. Peschak – Photographer, Shark Expert

Thomas P. Peschak lives in Cape Town, South Africa and is the chief photographer of the Save our Seas Foundation. A former marine biologist, he left science to pursue a life in environmental photojournalism. He has photographed and written three books, Currents of Contrast, Great White Shark and Wild Seas Secret Shores of Africa.

Q. Why are mangroves important?

A. When many people think of mangroves, they unfortunately envisage malaria-infested swamps full of dangerous and deadly beasts.  The mangrove’s bad reputation, which dates back to the age of Victorian explorers is tragic because these tidal forests, which effortlessly straddle the realm between land and sea are one of the most important ecosystems to grace our planet.  They act as nurseries and are the ocean’s kindergarten for many species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans.

Without mangroves coral reefs would be shadows of their riotous diverse selves.  Mangroves protect against coastal erosion and are our first line of defense against sea level rise as the world witnessed during the 2004 Asian Tsunami.  Coastlines with intact and healthy mangroves experienced less natural damage and a lower death toll than areas where they had been cleared.  Despite these glaringly vital roles that mangroves play, they are vigorously exploited.

Their formidable wood, largely resistant to wet rot and termites, is a desirable building material for boats and houses, but the greatest danger to mangroves is coastal development.  Their prime sea front location is often a death sentence as large-scale clearing goes hand in hand with the development of tourist infrastructure, shrimp farming ponds and commercial agriculture projects.

Q. Why are sharks important?

A. Sharks are one of Mother Nature’s great evolutionary success stories.  Their blueprint is so near perfect that it has remained almost unchanged for at least 100 million years.  Today, more than 440 species of shark roam the world’s seas, inhabiting every realm from the shallowest coral reefs to the deepest ocean trenches.  Sharks are the lions and tigers of the sea; they throne on the apex of the marine food chain and are crucial to maintain a healthy balance in the ocean.

Sharks are the glue that holds many of our  marine ecosystems together and their removal sends fishing ripples throughout the ecosystem.  We are only beginning to understand the effects of our actions, but we do know that healthy shark populations are vital for the survival of coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Sharks regulate reef fish populations, which in turn keep algae-grazing fish populations in check.  Too few sharks equals too many reef fish and therefore not enough herbivores to control the algae and seaweed growth on the reef.  In the words of Walt Whitman, “When you pull on any string, you find that it is connected to everything else in the universe.”

By keeping predators of commercially important species in check, sharks can also be essential for healthy fisheries.  The reduction of sharks in Chesapeake Bay in the U.S., for example, was a key factor leading to the collapse of the scallop fishery as ray numbers increased in the absence of their principal predators.

Q. How are sharks faring in your home country of South Africa?

A. South Africa manages its shark stocks better than most nations and in 1991 became the first country in the world to protect the Great White Shark.  Shark diving is very popular in South Africa and shark tourism brings in more than 30 million U.S. dollars annually. Despite this economic incentive, South Africa has still not banned shark fishing like the island nations of Palau and the Maldives who realize that sharks are worth significantly more alive than dead.

South Africa also continues to systemically exterminate sharks under the guise of protecting bathers.  A 27-mile-long installation of gill nets that entangle, suffocate and kill sharks has been positioned off of the eastern coast since the early 1960s.  In addition to catching so called dangerous sharks, most of the catch is, in fact, made up of harmless species and other marine animals such as rays, dolphins and turtles.

A credible alternative to shark nets is the use of shark spotters employed to scan the ocean from high vantage points for any approaching sharks.  The system has been successfully used in Cape Town since 2004 and whenever a shark is spotted, a white flag with a shark motive is hoisted and a siren sounded to get people out of the water.  For sharks to survive in South Africa’s seas in the long term, far more people will need to know and care about the role that they play in the ocean.

Who, though, is going to have the drive, commitment and desire to protect an animal that they are convinced is going to eat them the moment they venture into the sea?  It is therefore essential to first transform fear into fascination and hate into awe.

To see Thomas P. Peschak‘s full interview, and the full interviews of everyone in the book, click here to get your copy of Sea Voices now.

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