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Mexican Fishermen Saving Sharks

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Killing sharks never appealed to Gabino Zarabia, who started fishing at the age of 12. But a few years ago, having witnessed two exceptionally profitable seasons in his hometown, the Mexican fishing port of San Carlos in Baja California Sur, the 39-year-old commercial fisherman decided to give the shark business a try.

Just as Zarabia was getting ready to invest in new equipment, a tireless, young consultant from Mexico City by the name of Jeronimo Prieto stepped into the picture and turned his plans around.

Prieto, 27, is the founder of Pelagic Life, a Mexican non-profit with an unusual take on marine conservation: Working with, not against, the frequently demonized fishermen.

Pelagic Life had an idea: Paying local fishermen to help them free, with their bare hands, 100 hooked sharks in the Baja Peninsula. The goal was to teach the fishermen the financial benefits of a live shark, paving the way for ecotourism in the region. (While the port of San Carlos does bring in its share of tourists -- it is located on the shores of Magdalena Bay, a scenic hot spot for close grey whale encounters every winter -- sharks there are mostly butchered, not marveled at.)

In San Carlos, and in Mexico in general, sharks sell for little (the meat goes for less than $2 a pound; the fins for approximately $15), and shark fishing involves hard work and high risk. Additionally, every year, the general shark population decreases, says Zarabia, and profits are not nearly as high as in 2010 or 2011, when an astonishingly high number of silky sharks cruised through San Carlos.

Pelagic Life's project, dubbed "The Call of the Shark," aims to draw attention and customer flow to the area while preparing the fishermen to receive shark divers, thus creating sustainable livelihoods for the fishermen in order to preserve a rich, yet vulnerable ecosystem.

Getting the Fishermen on Board

Soon after meeting Prieto and learning about Pelagic Life, Zarabia got on board, quite literally: He rents and captains his boat for them during their local expeditions, which may include watching striped marlins feed off sardine baitballs, releasing blue and mako sharks, or even spotting an orca underwater, which a lucky few experienced last October.

"If Jeronimo hadn't arrived, I would be out there on my boat catching sharks," says Zarabia. But ecotourism is more fun, not as physically demanding and safer.

Formed by a handful of young, talented professionals, Pelagic Life does not operate by collecting signatures or lobbying government officials. Instead, their "office work" involves swimming alongside some of the ocean's most fascinating and daunting creatures (think great white sharks in Guadalupe Island or salt water crocs in Banco Chinchorro) with only one weapon in hand: a hefty camera.

When you look at some of the videos on their website, you may get the impression that it's all play and no work, which may make you want to join them. And that is exactly what they're aiming for.

"We want you to have a good time in the open ocean because that is how you are going to help save it," says Prieto.

Call of the Shark, Episode V

Last April, this journalist was able to join Pelagic Life on a "Call of the Shark" expedition to Baja. The first shark we saw was a small blue shark. It was constrained by a hook that had pierced the left side of its mouth, pulling the raw flesh open every time the desperate youngling fought to free itself. Telling by its jarring movements, the shark was very much alive. Its eyes, however, were rolled back, revealing prolonged agony, the kind that dithers between life and death.

Conditions were rough enough to make a stone seasick. The water was around 60 degrees. And yet, as soon as the Pelagic Life crew noticed the distressed shark, they donned a layer of neoprene and jumped in the cold water, pliers and camera in hand.

Founder of Shark Diver Magazine Eli Martinez has joined Pelagic Life on a few trips to Baja. The former rodeo bull rider tells me that before approaching the shark, he has to decide what kind of animal he's dealing with (almost dead and "just hanging" or extremely alive and aggressive). If it's the latter, you "wait to allow it to tire itself down or calm down enough to understand you are not trying to hurt it," he says. Then he grabs either the dorsal or pectoral fin and works his way up to the shark's face.

"Knowing the shark was supposed to die and being able to see it swim away and get a new lease on life" is like "having your soul on fire," says Martinez.

On our first day, shark fisherman Arturo "Eri" Avila, 35, joined our boat to help us find the hooked sharks and get a sense of the project. After seeing him unhook a shark from the boat by sticking his thumb into the shark's eye for support and releasing the hook with the other hand, I asked if he felt any empathy toward the sharks. He said, "No, I am a bad guy," with a touch of sarcasm.

Any serious discussion was put aside for the rest of the trip, during which a total of 10 sharks were freed. Everyone bonded on a very basic level: by sharing a few dirty jokes, sun-heated burritos and plenty of laughs.

One afternoon, we had the rare chance to swim with a Mola mola (or ocean sunfish), the world's heaviest bony fish. It was a first for Eri, who had never swum that far offshore, let alone with such an odd-looking creature. He put on a pair of long free-diving fins and got his picture taken, gliding below the gentle giant.

Back on shore, Eri wondered what it would be like to do the same with a shark.

Zarabia, whose wetsuit of choice are his blue jeans, had a similar moment with a sailfish on an earlier expedition. "I've seen photos of them," he says. "But I never imagined that one could feel such a direct connection underwater with the creatures that live in the ocean."

Changing Perceptions

Martinez says that conservation projects tend to make fishermen and fisheries the enemy.

"These are just guys trying to make a living and feed their families," he says. "We love the ocean, and so do they, in their own way."

Toward the end of the trip, the dividing line between fishermen and conservationists had been blurred and perceptions had started to change. Back at the fishermen's camp, Prieto experienced what it was like to slice a dead shark open, and Eri confessed that he "almost" didn't want to hunt sharks anymore. He was ready and excited to work with Pelagic Life, he said.

Prieto acknowledges that the "Call of the Shark" project won't make a significant difference to the species as a whole (so far, they've saved 23 sharks), but "it's the easiest way for us to approach the fishermen," he says. "Before, they saw us as strangers, as enemies. They would hide from us."

Five or ten years from now, Prieto envisions San Carlos to be an ecotourism hub that can be visited year-round: You've got grey whales from December to March, sharks from April to October, and striped marlin and more sharks from October to December. The ultimate goal would be the creation of a shark sanctuary in Mexican waters.

As to whether the "Call of the Shark" project will succeed, Martinez says "it may take a year or two or not happen at all. They don't have the infrastructure for it and people don't know what to do with the sharks other than eat them." But even if it failed, he adds, at least sharks are getting saved in the process.

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