A long time ago in the
far, far reaches
of the Gulf of Mexico…
The contrasting bars of the pilot fish create a striking image in the cobalt blue waters just beyond the continental shelf. Swimming in unison they dart, twist and turn in natural aquatic harmony.
Suddenly, from amongst the motion a strong form emerges.
Swimming with focus and purpose, the white bars on its fins reveal the ocean’s wanderer: the ocean whitetip shark.
It continues its trajectory at a slow but determined pace. Cruising just beneath the surface, it is set to prey on anything it might encounter.
Pickings can be slim in this desolate environment.
Once considered the world’s most common large animal (over 100 pounds) they are now deemed critically endangered. This is especially true for the Gulf of Mexico.
In a 2004 study, researchers Baum and Myers noted a 99 percent decline of oceanic whitetips in the Gulf since the 1950s.
“Scientists there once considered this species a nuisance because of the prevalence around vessels. Nowadays it is rarely seen,” they noted.
In hundreds of trips in the Gulf out of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi this writer has never seen one. And neither have dozens of veteran Gulf anglers I have interviewed.
And that concerns marine art icon and conservationist Guy Harvey.
“The oceanic whitetip is a truly remarkable shark and due to the high demand of fins from large shark species they have declined dramatically,” Harvey said.
Currently the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) and its partners are engaged in a study to track and analyze whitetip populations. They are studying the stock structure of oceanic whitetip sharks on a global scale by using genetic techniques, and migration patterns of this species in the western Atlantic with the aid of satellite tracking technologies.
Information gained on the whitetip’s movements can help create better management strategies to save the species.
When Harvey called the species “remarkable” that is not a generalized statement. He has firsthand knowledge having spent time in the water with the species and producing a documentary about their plight.
“They are bold and have no problems approaching a diver which makes for great interaction and observation,” Harvey said.
Harvey’s works with whitetips has allowed him to create stunning works of art showing the declining species in all of its glory.
Art captures the mood and feel of a natural scene better that photography and Harvey’s instantly recognizable style has resonated with an ocean-loving public in a way that connects them to wildlife.
“Things happen so fast down there and you have limited time. Painting allows to create a way to raise awareness to species that otherwise might not get much attention,” Harvey said.
The oceanic whitetip is one such creature.
If they disappeared tomorrow few anglers would notice. Most in the modern era have never seen one.
Beachcombers never see these open water dwellers anyway so that only leaves wildlife journalists like myself, researchers like Harvey and his crew and a handful of shark fanatics who would even notice their demise.
But to the ocean it does matter.
An intricately woven food chain has already been disrupted and if they were to vanish forever, the balance would be upset.
And the world would lose a beautiful, cunning predator.
We should do our best to support research like GHOF are doing and all efforts to ensure shark populations not only survive but perhaps one day thrive like they did so long ago in the Gulf and beyond.
For more information go to the website, guyharvey.com
According to the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conservation and management action are urgently required for this species; the only known conservation measure at present is a broad, multi-species pelagic shark quota for U.S. Atlantic waters.
“Specifically, fishing pressure on this species must be considerably decreased through reduction in fishing effort, catch limits, measures to enhance chances of survival after capture and possibly also through the implementation of large-scale oceanic non-fishing areas. Effective conservation of this species will require international cooperation”.
“The oceanic whitetip is listed as a highly migratory species under the 1995 UN Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (UNFSA). The Agreement specifically requires coastal States and fishing States to cooperate and adopt measures to ensure the conservation of these listed species. To date, there is little progress in this regard.”
Also of relevance is the FAO International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) which specifically recommends that Regional Fisheries Organisations (RFO) carry out regular shark population assessments and that member States cooperate on joint and regional shark management plans. This is of particular importance for pelagic sharks such as the whitetip whose stocks are exploited by more than one State on the high seas.”
Guy Harvey is a unique blend of artist, scientist, diver, angler, conservationist and explorer, fiercely devoted to his family and his love of the sea. His childhood passion for the ocean and its living creatures not only inspired him to draw, but fueled a burning interest that prompted a formal education in marine science.
Having graduated with honors in Marine Biology from Aberdeen University in Scotland in 1977, Guy returned home to Jamaica to resume his education, earning his Ph.D. from the University of the West Indies in 1984. Though he gave up a budding career as a marine biologist for that of a highly acclaimed artist, Guy has continued his relentless pursuit to unravel the mysteries of the sea, traveling the world to better understand the habits and habitats of the marine wildlife he paints.
Along the way, Guy became an ardent conservationist, supporting “catch-and- release” fishing ethics, collaborating with Nova Southeastern University in Dania Beach, FL, to form the Guy Harvey Research Institute, and working with many organizations to help manage and protect fishery resources around the world.
Guy is an avid scuba diver and over the years has become a skilled underwater photographer and cinematographer, even pioneering the techniques used to photograph and film free swimming billfish. From Central and South America to Mexico’s Magdalena Bay, to such far-reaching locales as the Portuguese island of Madeira and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Guy’s personal observations from his diving expeditions have helped him capture, with his brush, the kind of detail his paintings are famous for.
In addition, Guy’s talent as a cinematographer has allowed him to share his observations through the production of educational documentaries, plus his hit television series “Guy Harvey’s Portraits From The Deep.”
—story by Chester Moore