Speaking Up for Sharks

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jim Toomey, the cartoonist who draws "Sherman's Lagoon," wants kids to get active on behalf of sharks.

This might seem like an unlikely cause, since plenty of kids -- and adults, too -- fear sharks. But Toomey, who came up with the idea for a cartoon about a shark's lagoon while vacationing in the Bahamas when he was 9 or 10, is convinced that he can help people realize why sharks matter.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how important sharks are to the ocean and how overfishing has wiped out most of the sharks that have dominated marine ecosystems for millions of years. As the top predators in the sea, sharks both eliminate sick and dying fish and ensure that mid-level predators such as rays don't multiply to such massive numbers that they crowd out smaller fish.

Sonja Fordham, who directs the shark conservation program at the Ocean Conservancy, a group that works to protect ocean life, said some species such as porbeagle, sandbar and dusky sharks have been particularly hard hit.

One of the greatest threats to sharks is finning, in which fishermen cut off a shark's fins and throw the rest of the fish back in the water, where the shark almost always dies. They do this to supply Asian markets that make shark-fin soup, an expensive treat.

"Some of these sharks are so overfished they may not recover in kids' lifetimes," Fordham said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, which oversees sharks and other marine resources for the U.S. government, has taken several steps recently to protect sharks. In April the agency announced that it would prohibit fishermen from cutting off sharks' fins before bringing the fish ashore, and it reduced the number of sandbar and porbeagle sharks that can be caught in U.S. waters.

Toomey, for his part, recently drew some cartoons aimed at strengthening shark protections. In one, he urged readers to write to James Balsiger, who directs the fisheries agency, to push for international limits on shark fishing. In another cartoon, Sherman, the cartoon strip's central character, loses his fins.

"If shark populations continue to plummet and we don't change our ways, it will be the kids who will lose," Toomey told KidsPost. "My kids won't have a chance to see a shark in the wild and be inspired the way I did. And that's a shame. So, having the voice of shark conservation come from the children is particularly appropriate and poignant. It will be their world one day soon, and they should be telling us to take better care of it. Doing so with drawings will give them all a voice -- even my 3-year-old."

It remains to be seen how many kids will write Balsiger to demand greater shark-conservation efforts. "I'm looking forward to see if my grandchildren send me a card," he said.

-- Juliet Eilperin

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