A few years ago, while working on a story on the shark fin trade, I found myself freezing in the back of a panga 25 miles out from the Baja shoreline wishing I was dead.
Partly it was tossing seas that pitched the skiff from side to side and slapped over the gunwales. Partly it was the fact that the boat was so laden with thrashing sharks that the seas didn’t have far to get over the gunwales and if we capsized, we were dead men. Partly it was because I was freezing in the water and wind. But mostly it was because I had to pee.
Oh sweet mother of Christ, I had to pee. It was the kind of need to urinate that exceeds back teeth floating or desperate post pub-crawl moments, it was the kind of all-consuming need to empty your bladder that literally takes over your mind and won’t allow any other thought in except fantasies of that eventual, blissful release.
So it was a blessing when we approached one of the fisherman’s set hooks and the photographer slapped on his fins and suggested we drop in the water to have a look around (we had agreed, what with blood in the water and a thrashing toothy creature nearby, it would be best if I watched his back while he shot).
We dropped over the side of that horrible pitching boat, and immediately entered a silent, tranquil underwater world. But as soon as I hit the water, all the hairs on my neck stood on end. For a thousand feet under me and miles on all sides was only monochrome ocean blue. It was a peaceful, clear world where I didn’t belong.
And yet, when I saw the shark we had come to shoot, a strange thing happened. It was a sleek blue shark, maybe six feet long. Seeing its long, supple form against the endless blue of a thousand feet of water filled me with awe and terror. I watched as it struggled against the line, pulling the boat in a slow S curve.
And I felt an odd thing. Pity.
Here was a creature from my worst nightmare – a fish that could rip off a limb and then invite his friends to the feeding frenzy without batting a black, soulless eye. Don’t get me wrong, I love sharks about as much as a 6-year-old with a bag of candy and a Tevo full of Animal Planet. But I’m also happy that they’re not cruising around off every beach. If you asked me if I like sharks, I’d say yes. Ask me if I like them enough to increase the number of bull sharks off my favorite beach tenfold, I would have to pause and think about it.
And in that moment, drifting over that peaceful abyss watching an animal fight hopelessly for its life, I had a strange thought. It’s easy to talk about the conservation of pandas and bald eagles. And in some ways it’s even easy to argue for the protection of the harmless vernal pool fairy shrimp or the helpless coffin cave mold beetle.
The ultimate test of conservation – and of our role on this planet – is right here with a creature that would happily eat me (and indeed, two local fishermen who had capsized several months earlier and fallen victim to sharks). It’s much easier to talk about the preservation of pomace flies and purple threadtails – which I’d never heard of before right now – than a creature that’s instantly recognizable to every elementary school kid on the planet.
Despite what many biologists would have you believe, wildlife conservation is not a biological question. It’s heresy to say this but I don’t think the world would be fundamentally different without the Pacific Hawaiian damselfly. It’s not really an economic one or a political one either. If hammerhead sharks disappear tomorrow, the fishermen here would simply keep catching blues and makos or else switch to lobsters. They’ve done it before.
No, conservation is an ethical question. Do we, as a species, take responsibility for a world that has given us everything? And do we take pity on the horrific creatures who not long ago forced us to cluster together in frightened villages to escape their claws and teeth? Can we accept our mastery of a natural world that once terrified us?
This often gets missed in conversation about the future of our planet. We in America often say humans are dependent on every creature on Earth, as if society will implode if kit foxes disappear. But we’re really not and it sounds like a con when we say we are. I often see this in China, which has a much more utilitarian ethic when it comes to conservation.
It’s not that we need these creatures. It’s just our ethical duty to allow them to continue existing. It’s that no creature on Earth, no matter how clever or good with its hands, should have the right to remove another from this planet.
It’s likely that in the next ten years the Mexican porpoise, in the waters on the other side of Baja, will go extinct. There will be some stories in the paper, you will be sad for a moment, and then you will go on with your life in a world without the Mexican porpoise. But we will have failed that creature. We will have failed the men who fished the animal to extinction. And we will have failed ourselves.
I guess that’s the thing. A shark has no use for pity, but we do.
So, I suppose that’s where my ethic for wildlife conservation lives. Somewhere between fear, awe, and pity. Somewhere on beach where men spend months separated from families they can barely support. And it’s there, twenty feet below the surface of the rolling waves on a miserable windy day, alone in silence, desperately tugging on the end of a line.
Photo Credit: Dominic Bracco II/Prime
Special thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting