Credit: Deano Cook
Today we’re taking a dive into the topic of conservation in the shark capital of the world with Jillian Morris, aka Bimini Shark Girl. Jillian is a marine biologist, ocean conservationist, shark advocate, and renowned photographer/videographer. Her work has even been featured on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC. Now she combines her content with her science background to create free educational programs for kids around sharks. Sharks4Kids was born and the impact has been immense -- connecting with over 155,000 students around the world to change the conversation about sharks and teach kids from a young age to love and respect them.
Credit: Sophie Hart
When it comes to being a shark diver in the Bahamas - a place with one of the healthiest shark populations in the world because sharks are protected - Jillian studies first hand how species populations are affected in a slightly different way than the typical hot topics like finning and bycatch. The Bahamas is an extremely interesting and inspiring example of marine conservation -- in 2011 the Bahamas designated its entire 243,000 square miles of territorial waters as a shark sanctuary. This includes the ban of longline and gillnet fishing, practices which result in unsustainably high levels of bycatch. With these protections in place, we clearly see the benefits as shark populations are booming alongside the rest of the healthy ecosystem below the apex predators. The Bahamas proved that a healthy underwater world was worth much more than commercial fishing could provide. The value of a Caribbean reef shark was estimated to be $250,000 for tourism if kept alive, whereas that shark was only worth $50 if killed and sold.
With killing sharks out of the question, we turned to Jillian to hear what it’s like to be a conservationist in one of the healthiest and sharkiest waters in the world.
How did you go from living in Maine to living underwater with sharks in the Bahamas?
Growing up in Maine I spent a lot of time at the beach. We didn’t live very far from the ocean and luckily my parents loved the ocean as well. My connection to the water started at a very young age. As my experience with sharks and passion for them grew, I began traveling the world to work on research projects and then film shoots. The Bahamas is arguably the ‘shark diving capital of the world, ‘ so if you want to dive with sharks, you will end up here at some point. I found my way to the Bahamas while working on a research boat right after university. I immediately fell in love. For years, I continued to find my way back here. I met my husband in the Bahamas and we shared the same love for the islands and the sharks. In 2012 we got married here and then bought a house. Our lives revolve around sharks, so there is really no better place to be.
What does the ocean mean to you?
The ocean is where I spend a large majority of my life, but it’s more than diving, science and photography, it’s a place to reset. Even just a walk on the beach can change my head space. I find a sense of calm and relaxation. It really helps my soul.
What do you do with your nonprofit, Sharks4Kids?
The goal of Sharks4Kids is to create the next generation of shark advocates through education, outreach and adventure. We do this with dynamic educational resources, outreach programs and field trips. Kids have a voice, and they can make a difference. We want to empower and inspire them through access to facts, not fear. We provide free resources for teachers and students in the form of curriculum, activities, crafts, videos…. etc. We also do in person and virtual lessons with students around the world. Our field trips include taking students in the Bahamas on snorkeling adventures and students in Florida on shark tagging trips. Hands on learning and a personal connection to the ocean and sharks will help these students become advocates.
What is the biggest misconception about sharks in your opinion?
The idea that they are man eating monsters. There is so much fear and misunderstanding surrounding these amazing creatures. We have to change the conversation. Facts NOT fear. Sharks are intelligent animals and bites are actually very rare. On average, there are 5 shark fatalities in the world each year. This is extremely low considering how many millions of people go in the water each day, week, month.
What is the biggest threat sharks in the Bahamas face?
Coastal development has made a huge impact, especially with the destruction of mangroves. Mangroves provide critical habitat for juvenile sharks as well as numerous other species. We've seen these critical habitats be bulldozed to build hotels and casinos. This has a huge impact on not only the species living in the mangroves, but also other nearby ecosystems. If the population of juvenile animals is impacted this has a ripple effect to the nearby coral reefs and seagrass beds. It's all connected and protecting nursery habitats is critical for conservation.
What are some of the most promising recent initiatives in shark conservation?
I think it depends on where in the world you are focusing. The push to protect mako sharks has been extremely significant and action is needed now. I think overall, a better awareness of threats facing sharks is happening. Education is the first step to making change. It initiates research, conservation efforts and more.
What's your best piece of advice for people to get involved in both shark conservation and overall ocean conservation?
You can start at home! Actions in your daily life make a difference. Use less plastic, make sustainable seafood choices and support research and conservation initiatives. Find out if there are opportunities to get involved locally. If you are interested in a career, then definitely studying at university and doing internships.
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