As a shark and ray researcher, I had previously studied these incredible animals through behavioral and policy-based work, but our travel course to the Gulf of California was the first time I had seen fishermen interact with the resources that I studied and adored. For me, the most challenging part of the course was the transformation of these fishers from simply catch numbers in spreadsheets into real human beings trying to put food on the table.
This humanization of the fishermen was difficult for me, because philosophically, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was now sympathizing with some people who were killing the resources that I was trying to protect. Once I came to know the fishermen that were catching and killing sharks and rays, my perspective on the issues I’d previously worked on shifted in a big way. It’s easy to villainize people who fish sharks if you’ve never met them and have no connection to them, but when you shake their hand and look them in the eye, and have the ability to put yourself in their shoes, suddenly that all goes out the window. Honestly, I just wanted to hate them for catching the animals I was working to protect, but I couldn’t. If I could go back and rewrite my shark policy project, I would approach it completely differently. Oddly, I would actually work to legalize shark fishing so that it would be possible to regulate it, and get a sense of catch rate at the very least before making any moves to change the regulations associated with it. In addition, I don’t want fishermen who are simply trying to feed their family to be concerned about getting caught doing something that should not be illegal.
I never thought that I would be standing here today advocating the legalization of shark and ray fishing, but that’s the real power in this course – it pushes and challenges your pre-conceptions of the world and connects you with those you’ve only ever read about in literature. The papers I read before arriving in Baja California never could have prepared me for what I learned and saw. I never expected to be emotionally overcome by anything on the course in the way that I was, but I’m so glad to have seen and learned everything that I did. I’m hoping that in the future, my work with sharks and rays will help give back to the fishermen who educated me and changed my thinking.