We admire any and all organisations 'fighting the good fight' - and the Sharks Educational Institute is definitely one of those organisations leading the charge in education and conservation! We sat down with fearless leader and friend Fernando Reis to discuss SEI, what it does, and its future...
The Fins United Initiative: Hi Fernando! So when did you know you wanted a career that revolved around the ocean?
Fernando Reis: I was born nearby the ocean, in Lisbon, Portugal, and since I can remember the sea has been present in my life. My parents educated me to look at the ocean. They used to take me to the beach every single weekend, every annual holiday, every time they could, on summer and winter time. Since child I became very keen with intertidal areas and latter on of course with all marine life. More than only interested on marine biology, I was really interested in exploring and observing the zoology of intertidal zones and the tide movements since young age. Later on, I followed my studies always related with the economics, natural resources and renewable energies. The conservation of our planet's natural marine environment comes as a consequence of my set of major interests. All along my universitary studies and research, whenever could I used Blue Economy case-studies. I believe we can only survive, if we understand that the global sustainability is the most economic and unique solution to satisfy our needs as species.
TFUI: What is SEI and how did the idea come about for it?
FR: The Sharks Educational Institute (SEI) is a non-profit international NGO created, by the passion of a group of friends, for shark awareness learning, and promoting educative events to enhance the marine life balance based on sharks' knowledge.
TFUI: What sort of research does SEI carry out? What sort of outreach?
FR: Our principal focus of work is the development of the issues related to the marine environmental education of the younger and their active participation in the conservation of the sharks' species in their natural habitats.
Our vision is to enhance the public general knowledge of the marine life balance, based on sharks' conservation, all through our stakeholders' influences and involvement. Our mission is to create new educational events geared towards a better knowledge of the marine life balance supported on sharks.
TFUI: Wow! We love that!
FR: Nowadays, SEI collaborates with several organisations and is an active partnership of some coalitions not only in the Canary Islands, Spain, but also all around the Atlantic Ocean, along the Mediterranean, and in the Indian Ocean. We are also partners on a project which aims at setting the baseline and kick-starting a global population study for the species Aetomylaeus bovinus – the 'Fly With Bull Rays' project that is developing the first intraspecific photo-identification methodology for Bull Rays, with a non-invasive technique based on citizen-science.
TFUI: Did you hear that, TFUI readers? An opportunity for an internship/volunteering that deals with rays! Get in on that!
FR: As you can understand, this is a project based on a global data-gathering process with routine free-diving surveys and widen the contact network for citizen science; this constant data gathering is expected to provide sufficient data to publish population studies able to influence local and European decision-makers in the future, regarding habitats and species conservation needs. At the same time, we dedicate an important part of our resources to develop new Sustainable Shark Diving Courses, and other field educational initiatives related with Plastic Marine Debris Surveys. Recently we have developed new shark diving specializations of Blacktip Reef Shark Divers, and Arabian Bamboo Sharks Divers, in the Arabian Sea Region.
TFUI: What has been the coolest encounter with a shark (or other Chondrichthyan) that you've had?
FR: – It's so hard to choose just one! Perhaps the first time I had a shark encounter underwater or, the first time I've seen a Whale Shark; or when I saw my first White Shark. About 12 years ago I traveled to Gansbaai, South Africa, to follow a course on “White Shark Awareness”. And last year I had an amazing shark diving experience, when someone calls me to go to Fuerteventura Island, in Canary Islands archipelago, Spain, to dive with one of the less-seen Shark species ever: the Smalltooth Sand Tiger Shark, Odontaspis ferox. This year in January, I visited for the first time the Arabian Bamboo Sharks Chiloscyllium arabicum on their own habitat, in the Persian Gulf. If you let me answer you with three shark species... these are the ones I select right now. But one thing I'm pretty sure, I have been a very lucky person because of all my shark diving experiences.
TFUI: You can say that again! Do you keep to a particular schedule or is every day different for you?
FR: To work volunteer for an NGO as SEI, I always have to follow a working plan, otherwise I risk of loosing focus. Thus, there are always some activities we daily must fulfil, most of them related with SEI's communication and governance, but fortunately, as it happens when one does what one loves most, it seems to me that everyday is different.
TFUI: And why is your work at SEI so important?
FR: As you know, we work to enhance sharks' awareness among all divers, with diving centres, and we work with schools and other educative institutions, which requires a lot of preparation time. I cooperate, as well on behalf of SEI, with other environmental organizations, local governments, fishermen and a few other marine stakeholders, whether throughout the promotion and organization of new educative and cultural events, or on developing and supporting citizen-science based research projects.
TFUI: Is there a place you visited during your research that you can’t wait to get back to and stay awhile?
FR: Sure, there is! I love that question! More than one! After being in such wonderful remote places on shark expeditions, of course there are many places to revisit depending the research that's going on at the moment, providing I can dive underwater looking for sharks... But please let me answer exactly to your question with two unforgettable places: Gansbaai in South Africa, and Heron Island in the Australian Great Barrier! If I could, I would love to get back there again one day!
TFUI: Do you think locals are becoming more aware of the elasmobranchs in your area becauseof SEI? If so, what do you hope comes from their awareness?
FR: As I said before, the SEI is an international non-governmental organisation born out from the will of a group of volunteers acting in different countries, and with different skills. Thanks to our joint will, and teaching experience on sharks awareness and ocean conservation, we decided to start this initiative based on a set of values oriented to the education about the sustainability of our oceans. It is through our activity we aim to demonstrate these values: Respect - Collaboration - Passion - Creativity - Teaching. RESPECT is for caring - We care for others, for the planet, its nature, and for all oceans life forms. COLLABORATION is for doing - When we do things together, studying, learning and helping becomes more effective. PASSION is for protecting - We protect what we love. CREATIVITY is for dreaming - We dream of educating our children to live in a better world. TEACHING is for sharing - When we share what we have learned, the notion of knowledge takes on real meaning.
TFUI: We love those values.
FR: Personally, I truly believe the best we can do for our planet is to help preparing the future generations to live in a sustainable environment. When we prepare and develop an educational activity, in each place, wherever it is, we believe we can touch the people's awareness in multiples and diverse ways. When we ask participants what have they learned from an activity, or how do they feel after knowing what they've learned there, they all are unanimous in one point: they say they feel more confident now to talk about sharks and discuss with friends and family why we need to change our fearful perception of sharks, and why these magnificent creatures are actually the ones who need our help. Shark awareness is certainly something they will take home with them. And I want to believe that shark conservation is something that consecutively will come.
TFUI: What challenges came from starting SEI from the ground up to where you are today?
FR: The biggest challenge for us when we started the Sharks Educational Institute was to be connected from different points on the planet, with a common dream. Since the beginning we aimed to develop a diversity of initiatives based on a common denominator: to spread the needed knowledge regarding the different shark species, as well as the importance of marine environment in general. We do our best to create awareness of the importance sharks have to the balance of the marine biodiversity and, in a realistic way, reduce fear among the public. From the day we create the SEI until today, we have been increasing our team with experienced members in different areas and from different countries in the world. This complements the skills of each others, and at the same time enrich all of us on a continuously endeavouring knowledge improvement process. As we often state, this is really the basement of our values of Collaboration and Teaching. As well, if we work with Passion, Respect and Creativity, it will allow us to look to the future always with a positive thinking. We know we are not going to save the world, but if everyday we can influence one more person, a fisherman or a decision-maker, if everyday we can teach one more child, a teacher or a tutor, about the importance and the respect that marine nature deserves, it's again a rewarding day for sharks' conservation.
TFUI: What do you wish you had done differently?
FR: Certainly, there's one thing I have no doubt that we should have done: it was to start with the SEI some years earlier! But as we say, better late then never. That is how we are here today: looking forward to influence ocean and marine life stakeholders, and to share with them sustainable visions for healthier oceans.
TFUI: I feel the same way with TFUI. [laughs] In your opinion, what could be the best thing to happen (conservation, protection or policy-wise) to elasmobranchs in your neck of the woods?
FR: With the actual experience and based on the available data, I'm pretty convinced that we must change the actual marine conservation paradigms. We are depleting the marine nature's capital sooner than expected, but we keep acting the same way on fishery management and on other marine resources undertakings exploitations. The world needs to look to the ocean conservation in a different way. It is time now! We all need to understand we must respect the nature we still have, and from which we all depend. Life emerged from the ocean. Our own survival as species totally depends on healthy and balanced oceans!
For the conservation of elasmobranchs in the regions where we can have the influence of any of our members, we all share a tool that we believe can be part of a first step towards the solution of balanced oceans: the creation and the good management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). If you have dived inside a MPA, then you know the difference it makes to biodiversity. MPAs are usually marine environments of no-take-areas that represent the most successful management method for the recover and conservation of any trophic network in a specified location. MPAs become therefore crucial for the recuperation and conservation of certain habitats such as coral reefs and as other marine ecosystems. And it has been recently proved that high seas' fishing isn't profitable, we are now cooperating with many other people, to have transform them into the biggest marine reserve on the planet. It is the "all in one" solution – sustainability based on environmental, economic, social and healthy welfare! In fact, there's no doubt today that banning fishing in the high seas will allow stocks to rebound and spread outward again, spilling into nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extend 320km (200 miles) from shore! We think we all should get involved on this! It is the best proposition for sustainability of the planet in the XXI century. Also, to give the best support to this question, we consider that education as the best initiative to place on the agenda of the United Nations for the most sustainable marine development. Conservation measures, general protection attitudes, and policy-wise, will always come out after a well structured education process.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
FR: You know? Personally, I always choose to be a positive thinker. This is why I believe everyone, in any part of the globe, feels a certain attraction by the ocean environment, and once someone learns something related with the ocean, this person tries to behave according the perception she or he got, trying to have a good “relationship” with the ocean. Of course this exhibits both sides of the coin.
As we all know, and if we talk about sharks, there are some people that only experience and build their learning through the watching of some type of romanticized movie productions where sharks have won their bad reputation. Of course these people evaluate their knowledge far from the reality and develop their ocean relationship based on misleading information. As we also know that ocean suffers from poor management, specially where politicians and governments are concerned.
But, as I learned in different places from different people, and around various marine sectors of this blue planet, in general one likes to develop a relation with the ocean and the marine nature, in a positive way. I understand this relationship is closely connected to the knowledge each person has about the oceanic environment. Like as everything in life, having a good relation with the ocean is directly based on a certain proportionality with education.
The educational activities, the diving experiences we have been developing for shark conservation and education with the SEI in different countries, and touching different cultures, have taught us that in general people's behaviour is very similar around the world. Our relationships, our prejudices, our feelings, are built on the inputs we get. Again, it's all about education. And there, we are doing our best.
TFUI: We love that outlook! Where do you see yourself and SEI in five years?
FR: As you know the oceans houses the most important environments on the globe. We all depend on healthy oceans. But now, due to excessive pollution, climate change, overfishing, and generic anthropogenic degradation, the future of nature depends on us, human beings. At SEI, we work to develop new motivational issues oriented to the marine education of the younger and their active participation in the conservation of sharks' species in their natural habitats, through the awareness of our individual and collective responsibility. I wish that in a near future, all our volunteers, funders, team members, scientific researchers, divers, teachers, photographers, filmmakers; our friends, and our partners and stakeholders, can work in coordination for a better environmental marine awareness globally across the entire planet. And, there's where I see myself working to the SEI, in five, ten, twenty years, and more, as long as life allows me!
TFUI: What do you hope others can take away from your experiences?
FR: As you know, our experiences are based in many hours of study, diving and observation of sharks in their natural habitats. And we wish to share these experiences with others. In the same way that Sylvia Earle has been always a reference to me, and as I've learned from her, and still do learning so many beautiful facts about marine life and the ocean's balance, I believe it is also possible for you, for me, and for many others to involve the people we met, to become an inspiration at their own scale too. Locally, on their places, villages, on their schools, on their own businesses, everyone may share their own dreams and their own references for a better world. I dream with the day when people, in every little corner of the world, in every decision-makers meeting, in every social event, will start to think globally and really act locally. For the understanding of the planet ecology and conservation of marine ecosystems, I believe this is why I do what I do.
TFUI: Thank you for your time, Fernando!
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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