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An interview with Ian Campbell suggests that the combined force of Projects Abroad and the WWF is good news for sharks


An introduction to Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell talking to Projects Abroad volunteers in Fiji

Ian Campbell has an impressive background working as a marine surveyor, commercial diver, fisheries observer and writer of the fisheries policy for the UK and European governments. Today he dedicates his time to leading the WWF’s global shark management work which plays a vital role in the animal’s protection.

In this interview Ian provides background on the complementary values of the WWF and Projects Abroad leading to the potential collaboration of these two forces, and he also answers frequently asked questions relating to shark conservation.

Why Ian believes 2014 could be a great year for sharks

2014 could turn out to be a very important year for shark conservation for a number of reasons. Firstly there are those that have been on the calendar for over a year, such as trade limitations for some sharks and rays under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES), or proposals to protect more sharks and rays under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), while some others may arise due to the chance meeting between two people from the small, rugby mad country of Wales in the small, rugby mad country of Fiji.

Ian describes a chance meeting and how it led to a meaningful partnership

I had just arrived in Fiji to manage WWF’s new global shark conservation work and overheard another distinctive Welsh accent in the bar where I was having lunch. I went to seek out the owner of the accent (even though it came from Cardiff, whereas mine was from nearer Llanelli), and found out that it belonged to Project Abroad’s shark coordinator Ingrid Sprake, another recent arrival to Fiji. We were shocked and amused to find out that we both worked in shark conservation, and we made a vow to change the world (for sharks at least). Ten months on from that initial accidental meeting, WWF and Projects Abroad are exploring a way to do just that.

Over the past few months I have become more involved in the Shark Conservation Project in Fiji, giving regular informal talks to volunteers on wider aspects of shark and ray conservation issues while WWF have been developing our global shark strategy. Now we are at a place where we could really live up to the wild claim I made with Ingrid all those months ago.

Ian’s experience of Projects Abroad

A group of Projects Abroad volunteers posing underwater in Fiji

I was first asked to come and give a talk to volunteers in early 2014 which gave me a chance to put a little policy perspective to the hands-on research. As someone who started out volunteering on a shark research project (albeit a long, long time ago) it gave me an opportunity to give something back, although more importantly it gave me an opportunity to learn more about how Projects Abroad operated and what was going on. To say I was impressed was an understatement. The volunteers were engaging and polite as I meandered through my dull policy talk, but what really struck me were two things.

Firstly, the staff. I could not fault the enthusiasm for all things shark by the scientific team of Diego, Josh, and Kira who not only engage with the volunteers and visitors like myself, but also show levels of passion that put many to shame. They also really know their stuff, while Andy and Ingrid ensure there’s a productive yet fun schedule ensuring everything runs smoothly. But the main thing that impressed me was how rounded the project is. It’s not just about tagging and recording the movements of some sharks, research like this happens all over the world. When I learned about the mangrove replanting scheme run by Ron Ronaivakulua, I was blown away.

A recent report by the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated that a quarter of all species of sharks and rays are threatened with the very real possibility of extinction. The two main reasons are overfishing and a loss of habitat. The Projects Abroad mangrove replanting scheme is unique in that it encourages local communities to recycle old plastic bottles which are then used to grow and replant mangrove seedlings, which in turn will provide nursery and foraging habitats for future shark species (among others). In August I attended a global conference on shark research, where some of the leading universities and academics spoke about their work. From what I saw, lots of projects generated shark and ray data, but none were doing any mitigation. This is what I believe sets the Projects Abroad work apart.

The launch of the Pacific Shark Heritage Program and the need for collaboration to further research

Last month WWF launched our Pacific Shark Heritage Program. The objective of this is not only to work towards sustainable shark populations, but to reinforce the important role sharks and rays play in the cultural identity of Pacific Island nations. When researching this we were amazed at how many fables, songs and depictions of sharks and rays in indigenous songs there were in the region. Losing any of these iconic species would not only have an ecosystem effect, but would also impact the cultural identity of Pacific Island communities. Our work is not only to preserve threatened species, but also to preserve a way of life.

Which brings me to the potential collaboration between WWF & Projects Abroad. At WWF, we believe one of the biggest problems facing shark conservation and management is the lack of available data. The same IUCN report I previously mentioned also had another worrying fact, that nearly half of all sharks and rays are classed as “data deficient”. Basically, this means that virtually nothing is known about their populations. This makes management of sharks and rays almost impossible. It would be like trying to manage your budget without knowing how much money you have or what interest rates you are paying.

A volunteer swimming with over 700 barracudas

To rectify this, we are working with some leading academic institutions to develop an assessment toolkit which can give some simple baseline data that will tell countries the state of their shark populations. Once we have developed the toolkit, we will need people on the ground to see if the data generated is worthwhile, which is where Projects Abroad can come in. I truly believe that in a relatively short space of time, we can develop a whole range of different ways to collect and analyze shark data, and if we can, we can start filling in those grey areas where we currently know nothing. Citizen science will play a huge part in the future of sharks and rays.

Since I have been collaborating with Projects Abroad, I have had the pleasure of speaking to many volunteers on a range of subjects, but a few common ones keep arising, so I would like to take this opportunity to address these.

Ian answers frequently asked questions

What was the thing that most surprised you about the project?

As I previously mentioned, it’s how complete the project experience is. You get the shark work, diving, habitat restoration, and working directly with communities to improve the daily life of villagers.

What do you believe is the most important thing that the average person can do to help save sharks?

There are three things. Get involved with Projects Abroad, support the work of WWF, or, maybe more importantly, write to your government to tell them how sharks and rays are important to you. There is nothing more powerful for a government minister than a personal communication. If you want to know more about global shark issues, feel free to contact us at WWF.

Why are you passionate about saving sharks?

I’ve been passionate about the marine environment since I was young, having lived in a small fishing village in the UK. I am also of the generation that was around when both Jaws was in the cinema and the BBC were starting to make fantastic natural history documentaries. The more I found out about sharks, the more I realized they didn’t really live up to their notoriety as mindless killers. Also, sharks are cool (as are rays, little shark pancakes of wonder).

If you had to only give one reason, what would it be for why we should be saving sharks?

They are an economic asset for small island countries. Sustainable shark populations can benefit fisheries, help keep the marine ecosystem in balance, and provide a long-term source of income from eco-tourism.

Ian Campbell – Ian has spent his entire career employed across the spectrum of fisheries science and policy, working as a marine surveyor, a fisheries observer, and writing fisheries policy for the UK & European governments. He even spent several years as a commercial diver working on oil rigs and for the film industry. Ian is currently leading WWF’s global shark management work.

Read more about this project and find out how you can get involved on our Shark Conservation in Fiji page.

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