Sharkophile: Interview with David McGuire

Shark Hero Talks: David McGuire

Credit: David McGuire.

David McGuire, marine biologist and shark advocate, is the founder of the Ocean Health and Shark Conservation non-profit Shark Stewards dedicated to saving sharks and protecting critical marine habitat. As a sailing captain, divemaster, and filmmaker, David explores the ocean on numerous sailing voyages producing media with an emphasis on sharks and ocean awareness.

He has received numerous awards for his work including an award for Journalism with KQED for the investigative story Sea Horse Sleuth, the 2011 Hero of Marin Environmental Stewardship Award, and an Emmy award for his work on the documentary Reefs to Rainforests. David has been recognized by Congressman Jared Huffman for his work and was awarded the Hero of Marine Award for catalyzing shark fin trade bans in North America.

What inspired you to save the shark?

“I grew up along the California coastline. Surfing, playing in the water from a very young age. I have an early love for the ocean. I studied marine biology in college and worked at UC Berkeley for several years. My background, though, was studying environmental health and toxicology. But I’m an ocean boy. I’ve sailed through the south pacific several times. In 2001, I went on an expedition to survey coral reefs and encountered hundreds of reef sharks. I got intrigued, though, when I heard of finned sharks outside of Fakarava. We asked the local guide what was going on, and he told us that the Tuna fishermen sell fins. It seemed crazy, but at the main port, we encountered a Taiwanese fishing vessel. Shark fins filled the entire rail of this ship.”

“I took a sabbatical and went back to Fakarava with cameras and highlighted this topic which was still relatively unknown: shark finning. We made a documentary called ‘shark stewards of the reef.’ I quit my job at Berkeley and started Shark Stewards in 2006. We then introduced the California shark fin ban. Now we work in policy to protect sharks from overfishing and protect critical habitat through marine protected areas. 

What is the mission of Shark Stewards?

“Shark Stewards’ mission is to save sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade, as well as to protect critical marine habitat.”

What are your primary responsibilities as Director of Shark Stewards?

“Driving public energy and support towards altering perceptions and policy. I’m the catalyst. We are a team of over a thousand people internationally. Working to protect sharks where they live and from international trade. I fundraise, write grants, raise money to keep the mission alive.”

“A large part of my work is in education, I consider myself an educator. I am an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. I love to teach, and I love to inspire people. Without inspiration and passion for the ocean, people won’t be as inclined to protect something that they have a negative perception of.”  

Credit: David McGuire.

What does success look like for Shark Stewards?

“We go state by state with our partners to introduce legislation. We raise a ton of awareness through shark fin bans. The data can be overwhelming (over 100 million sharks killed per year), but these shark fin bans initiate discussions that need to go overseas to major consumers. We started here in San Francisco in China Town. Shark fin soup is associated with honor and wealth, prestige, and generosity. That all sounds great, but it is not that generous and certainly not prosperous for sharks.”

“Success is passing laws to restrict trade and creating international protections through CITES. Our priorities now are protecting endangered sharks from extinction. It is a critical time for sharks, so we focus on awareness, trade, and try to reduce the impact on sharks from fisheries.” 

What is next for Shark Stewards in 2021?

“We’re going to work with Oceana to reintroduce the shark fin sales elimination act. That act was carried by senator booker last year. It’s been in three different congresses. We are confident that the US will be the second large nation (behind Canada) to ban shark fin sales and trade. Therefore, we won’t have to go state by state to pass legislation. We will be able to focus on the issue in Asia to work on reducing the trade and inform consumers.”

“The other thing is we are working to secure the monument status that the Trump administration threatened. We hope the Biden administration will reverse these damaging executive orders and protect these Pacific island monuments.” 

Can you take us through your process of creating a protective policy for sharks?

“It depends on the area. Here in the US, where we have a structured legal system, it’s a little easier than abroad. One example is we have been working against a very harmful fishery, a gillnet fishery. They call it a swordfish fishery, but it’s a shark fishery. The bycatch is tremendous. At least 50 blue sharks are killed for every swordfish, according to one study. We had success, but Trump vetoed it. We have strong support from the Ocean Protection Council, and NOAA though, so we’re going to keep working on that. There is a (legal and public) process. We can introduce an amendment or drive legislation through our assemblymen. 

Abroad, such as in Indonesia or Malaysia, we created a non-profit with locals to address the problem of overfishing and the shark fin trade. We then work with the local government by holding meetings and symposiums, generating popular articles, and creating awareness within that community. As outsiders, you can’t tell people what to do. Therefore, it is imperative to work with organizations and drive change through the community itself. There are regulations in southeast Asia. However, there is little enforcement.”

“For example, in Malaysia, they don’t have a law against shark finning. There is a denial that they even fish sharks. We then did 175  surveys and demonstrated that they kill hundreds of thousands of sharks. We provide data to demonstrate that there is a need for protection.” 

Credit: David McGuire.

How do you collaborate with international communities to pass legislation?

“In Malaysia, I was invited. I was giving a talk for the United Nations, and this woman let me know I should come to Malaysia and set up a meeting. It’s all about connecting with people and networking through who people know. We are very grassroots. It’s sporadic that we put a suit and tie on. What we try and do is raise awareness and engage policymakers. The big non-profits have the lobbyists and the money to sit the long and arduous legal processes out. What we try to do is catalyze it, partner, and drive the support to implement it.”

“I have a science background. I can come in and generate data. I can speak to the data. But my partners in other countries are the ones that are going to need to get their lawmakers to act.”

How do you think film influences people to support shark conservation?

“I like to think it’s highly influential. I made my film for PBS, and it was probably the first time people in China got to see the impacts of shark fin soup. The same year, shark water came out. Seeing the images are compelling. You see a living animal having a body part whacked off. It’s abhorrent. It’s kind of like The Cove of raising world awareness about these ocean issues. I have a new movie called Metalfish coming out about mercury in big fish. The film is hugely important in raising awareness. Even short films get people’s attention. I don’t watch Tik Toks, but I know they reach a lot of people.”

“Look at David Attenborough, he’s been in the game for about 60 years, and he’s still doing it. He is an incredible voice and icon for the ocean and the planet. We did some short shark films on plastic and sharks with David.”

What is your favorite shark species?

“That’s like asking which of your children do you love the most. I’m inclined to answer Hammerheads. They are fascinating to spend time in the water with. I drive to dive with hammerheads as much as I can. They are so intriguing, so highly adaptive. With their incredible vision and the way that they swim, they are amazing sharks. When you see them in large groups, it’s mesmerizing. It’s almost like a spiritual experience for me. They are also one of the most threatened sharks.”

“Over 90% of scalloped hammerheads, probably more, have disappeared from the planet in the last 50 years. That is truly alarming. They are among the highest valued shark fins, and they aggregate. We see these poachers off areas like the Galapagos whipping out entire aggregates of hammerheads. You talk to any scuba diver. They want to see a hammerhead. So there’s a lot of reasons to protect them for our own experiences, not just the value they bring to marine ecosystems.”

If you were to receive a research grant right this second, how would you use it?

“We would take it to Indonesia, where we have our conservation center. There is a desperate need to protect a couple of these shark hotspots. More active field observations and tagging are required. We found deepwater pinnacles that are a key scuba diving destination. With a grant, we would generate more data and start the process of creating a marine protected area there.” 

Credit: David McGuire.

What facts about sharks matter the most when shark finning legislation is involved?

“Big sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing. They are slow-growing, have a late onset of reproduction, and have relatively few young. Their reproductive strategy is more similar to mammals than bony fish. Therefore, it’s effortless to overfish a shark population. As apex predators, they are also not as abundant as species in other trophic levels. They are crucial to the balance of marine ecosystems. If you remove the top of the food chain, it’s like a house of cards, the roof falls off the house, and the walls fall. Protecting sharks, especially large sharks, we are protecting ocean health.” 

What is your biggest advice to undergraduate students pursuing careers in conservation?

“Take your science classes! It’s essential to understand and communicate science well. Many scientists are great scientists but not great communicators. It’s important to have some grounding in science, though. We try to apply data towards policy because it’s hard to argue against numbers. Also, be passionate!” 

What advice would you give a graduate student that wants to study sharks?

“Work on policymaking. Everybody wants to tag a shark, but you’ve got to earn your chops. You need to understand sharks, study their behavior, understand population biology. You can’t just go out there and fish. Studying sharks is a privilege, and it is hard, as there are only so many shark scientists that can take students out. However, there are so many other avenues that graduate students can take and still protect the ocean. Take the ecosystem approach. I’m not a shark hugger. I’m an ocean lover. You need to look at the integrative whole. There are so many questions that need to be answered and so many exciting things you can learn. You can help save sharks that way.”  

Learn more about Shark Stewards at their website here!