Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Passion Wins the Day: Jamie Pollack, Shark Savers

How to begin a nonprofit and discover a calling? It starts with passion. Jamie Pollack should know, she left her successful career in marketing to help save sharks.

Scallop Hammerhead Shark taken by Jamie
Pollack while diving in Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Eco Ocean Interview with Jamie Pollack, co-Founder of Shark Savers

Like many good things, it started with love.  For Jamie Pollack, co-founder of Shark Savers, it was love for, well, yes, sharks but also for diving among them and other beautiful animals of the big blue.

“I work to dive,” said Jamie when she recently sat down with Eco Ocean to talk about her experiences starting a nonprofit and provide her fine insight into shark conservation.

Jamie after "another great dive in Cocos"
Shark Savers is a classic example of good intentions coming out of shared passion. She and five other divers saw the ugly side of humanity in the form of shark finning so they created a nonprofit. Jamie even left her professional work in marketing to help save sharks. CNN Money ran a story about how she changed her life for conservation.

As we spoke, Jamie struck me as the kind of person who would succeed at most anything simply by embracing it with her bright smile, engaging energy and frank, can-do spirit. She’s the kind of ally that should give sharks, and ocean lovers, something to feel good about. With at least 73 million sharks killed annually, mainly for their fins, we need something.

Jamie is an inspiring testament to the fact that people can do amazing things when they find something they love.  I for one am glad she is on the side of shark conservation.

Please read on to hear more about Shark Savers' accomplishments and challenges in Jamie’s own words.

Eco Ocean: What is Shark Savers?

JP: Our mission is to save the sharks. We focus on education and awareness because most people still think sharks are out to kill them, or don't know that sharks are being fished towards extinction, or are unaware of the disastrous impact that shark eradication has on the oceans and food supply, or don't know that mercury in shark fin soup is hazardous.

We also empower people to take action by getting involved in our programs and campaigns. 

How did Shark Savers start?

We saw the film Sharkwater and were inspired to do something.  So we created Shark Savers, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to saving sharks worldwide. We (six scuba divers) spent about six months, researching, creating by-laws, and coming up with a name.

Everyone volunteered their skills. I designed the logo, produced and created t shirts and stickers, marketing materials and helped with the website, and that was great for me. (Jamie has a background in graphic design).  Our other founders came from backgrounds in education, in business, in media. We were certainly feeling our roots when we first started out.

How did you raise money?

At first it was all volunteer, and then we used our own money. The fundraising and donations came later after we figured out who we were and what we wanted to focus on.

What were some of your first wins?

The shark sanctuary in Palau, Micronesia.  We worked with a local NGO, other stakeholders, Pew (Charitable Trust) was involved -- we all worked together at the grassroots level.

We got 3,000 signatures to say a live shark is worth more than a dead one. Micronesians and divers signed the petition. It was great. We then later presented a thank you book designed by me to the President of Palau with all of the signatures we collected and their comments. It was great.

Saying hello to a Hawksbill turtle
while diving a wreck in the Florida Keys

What have been some of your most recent wins?

Our billboard campaign against shark fin soup. We worked with Wild Aid, purchased a PSA (Public Service Announcement) and aired it in the US and China. Yao Ming (the Chinese basketball star) was key.

Why do think that campaign was successful?

The billboard campaign was successful because it was something tangible, something people could do other than just spread awareness. You can say don’t eat shark fin soup and they say ‘ok I don’t’.  They ask: How else can I help? You can buy a billboard in China.

We got 1,000 people to pay 100 bucks each. It was awesome, through our network, through our newsletter, we followed up with a survey that said that many people were not eating shark fin soup anymore.

What is your current focus?

We’re watching a California bill that would make it illegal to consume shark fin products.  The mayoral candidate in San Francisco opposes it.

What is the biggest challenge with shark finning?

Culture. The Chinese say we’re targeting them, their culture, but the facts remain that most people who eat the soup are Chinese...Shark fin soup is a big time traditional status symbol in China, often served at weddings and banquets, and going for about $100 a bowl at restaurants.

I went down to Chinatown in New York City to talk to restaurant owners and workers about it. Some people gave me strange looks, the managers acted all nervous and twitchy as if it was illegal. It is not illegal, unfortunately, but I could tell some of them knew they were destroying the environment.

It’s tough. You can’t tell a fisherman to not fish for sharks, he’s trying to put food on the table for his family. He gets about five dollars a day. It’s the middleman making all the money.

Heard what happened to Gordon Ramsey? Gas was thrown on him in Costa Rica by shark finners. It is a billion dollar business, it is like drug trafficking and sex trafficking. That’s the way I see it.

So you have to go to the demand and the demand is coming mostly from people eating shark fin soup.  We are currently looking for someone of Chinese background to speak to help us speak to fellow Chinese.

Shark fin soup came about from a Chinese Emperor a long time ago. He wanted to show his power by getting things nobody else could get.  Back then fishing was dangerous and hard, so shark fins were on his list. It’s a status symbol that is all it is. It’s a shame.

Another challenge is that sharks migrate and it’s hard to know, to have an idea of species as there is no way to test the type of shark at the dock. Hard to enforce, hard to track.

An incredible close encounter with
a Giant Pacific Manta Ray in the Socorro Islands
How do you generally approach your mission?

I’m optimistic and realistic. I go up and down. The younger generation gets it. Through social media and Facebook, the younger generation knows what’s happening now. Others are learning, too. But do sharks have enough time? I don’t know.

What do you think about people’s psychological reaction to sharks?

It’s a big problem. People are scared of the sea because of movies like Jaws and the myths that sharks like to eat humans. After he wrote Jaws, Peter Benchley spent the rest of his life trying to save sharks. His wife is on our board continuing his work.

The myth that goes around sharks, that they want to eat humans, it is a big problem. I see it all the time. I saw this piece on Ellen the TV show, this woman who paddled solo across the Pacific with a whale following her. She said she was thinking that the whale was protecting her from sharks, even though she didn’t see any sharks. Why was she so scared of sharks?

Soda machines fall on more people and kill them than shark bites kill people.

Discovery Channel is bad for us too, bad for shark conservation. Shark Week supports the myths and fear. We talked to them to try to get them to do something about producing some reputable shows on shark conservation but they declined. They prefer the shock factor, the blood and guts shows. It’s really a shame because they have such a  large captive audience, they could really make a difference.

What do you like about sharks?

They’re strong, powerful, nobody messes with them except for us, man, of course.  Orcas will kill sharks, but generally they do not have many predators.

What are your favorite sea creatures?

Great white, whale shark, octopus.

What are your favorite ocean places?

Palau, Galapagos, there are so many beautiful places. My next trip is to Bali and diving in Komodo. I won’t take a vacation unless it’s to dive and will travel to ends of the Earth to do it.

Click for more information on Shark Savers or find them on Facebook.

CNN Money story on Jamie.

Jamie's personal website.

All images from Jamie. 

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