Australian teenager on a mission to protect toothed sharks



CNN

With a menacing grin, needle-like teeth and a sharp, pointed snout, a gray nurse shark is not a creature most people would want to encounter. But Shalise Leesfield is not most people.

The 16-year-old Australian couldn’t think of a better creature to meet when diving off the coast of South West Rocks, near her home in Port Macquarie, a coastal town north of Sydney.

“I know there’s a big stigma about how scary they can look, but I promise you, they’re the sweetest animals ever,” she says. “They are so docile and so curious, they are like the Labradors of the sea.”

Slow-moving sharks, which like to dwell near the bottom of the sea in warm, shallow water, are mostly harmless to humans. But the gray nurse shark (also known as the sand tiger shark and the jagged tooth shark) is under threat. Populations have become fragmented, habitats have been lost due to ocean warming and human development, and extensive fishing has led to a sharp decline in numbers, according to the IUCN, which classifies the species as critical danger of extinction.

Shalise Leesfield 1

Australian teenager makes ocean safer for sharks

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– Source: CNN

One area where they can still be seen is Fish Rock, an underwater cavern with a vibrant and unique ecosystem, 40 miles offshore from Leesfield’s home.

Diving the 410-foot-long tunnel, among pink gorgonian corals and sponge gardens, is an “adrenaline rush,” says Leesfield. In addition to gray nurse sharks, whales, rays, groupers and many more marine species can be seen there.

But recreational, professional and charter fishermen can access within 200 meters (656 feet) of Fish Rock, as long as they use special plant-derived bait. This is leading to a decrease in biodiversity and an increase in pollution, says Leesfield. It wants to expand the no-fishing area, establishing a protected “sanctuary zone” of 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) to reflect studies that have found gray nurse sharks migrating that far.

His campaign has already seen the area nominated as a Point of Hope, which is part of the Mission Blue program launched by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle which identifies places of critical importance to ocean health and gives protection support. This has helped raise awareness of the fragility of both the area and gray nurse sharks, says Leesfield.

Gray nurse shark numbers have declined in recent years, making the species critically endangered.

“When people think of Hope Spots, they think of Sydney Harbor or the Great Barrier Reef … so getting Fish Rock up to this platform is such incredible news,” he says. “I love calling Fish Rock a beacon of hope for these sharks, because it’s their home. … It’s such a crucial place for them, and to not have protection for such an important habitat, it’s devastating.”

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Leesfield is currently working with politician Cate Faehrmann, Member of Parliament and Maritime Spokesperson for the Australian Green Party in New South Wales, to legalize shark protection and implement a no-fishing zone in the area.

Faehrmann explains that Fish Rock is a critical breeding ground for gray nurse sharks. “It has to be protected to ensure the survival of the shark,” she says, adding that she is proud to have worked with Leesfield. “Shalise is part of a new generation of activists speaking up for the environment and our future is much brighter as a result of her passion and determination to save our planet and our precious wildlife.”

For someone fresh out of high school, it sounds like an impressive feat, but Leesfield’s conservation track record goes beyond protecting gray nurse sharks.

At the age of 11, after noticing the damage that plastic pollution can do to the marine environment, he started a campaign calling for fishing line collection containers to be installed in his area in order to reduce pollution of the oceans It resulted in a government environmental grant worth more than A$75,000 ($48,000).

Shalise Leesfield has been campaigning to protect the environment since she was 11 years old.

Since then, she has founded “Shalise’s Ocean Support” which aims to inspire people to care for the environment, and started a website “Plastic Free Schools” which advises teachers and students on reducing school waste.

Related: Scientists fight to protect a ‘superhighway’ of sharks and turtles

Leesfield’s dedication to the cause stems from a deep love of the ocean that grew out of his kayaking and scuba diving experiences.

“I guess falling in love with the sea over time grew my passion and made me stand up for what I really love,” she says.

He believes that the younger generation needs to get out of the mindset that saving the environment is something that should be “left to the adults”.

“We are the ones who will inherit the Earth and the ocean,” he says.

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