The Ocean, So Blue

Scuba divers and shark

SHARK CONSERVATION PARAMOUNT FOR ALUMNA

Jill Hepp’s love affair with sharks began in the crystalline waters of Belize. There, less than a year removed from USD — and in the midst of a Peace Corps stint — she was offered a chance to dive with scientists researching the elusive whale shark.

At first, the Gulf of Mexico didn’t reveal its mysterious denizens. Then, in the distance, massive brown forms began to take shape.

“When you first see them, it’s like ghosts coming out of the deep blue,” says Hepp, a senior officer of international oceans with the Pew Charitable Trusts, the nonprofit known in part for its environmental initiatives. “As they get closer, it’s like they’re moving in slow motion. They hang there and look at you. They’re just beautiful creatures.”

By day’s end, scientists counted as many as 15 whale sharks that had come to feed on dog snapper spawn. The species is the world’s largest fish and can reach 41 feet in length and weigh up to 47,000 pounds. It is considered “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

For Hepp (pictured above at right), the experience helped solidify her commitment to international wildlife conservation, an interest she began cultivating at USD. As an undergraduate biology major, she did a study abroad stint in Baja California, and earned her BA in 2000.

“Jill was very inquisitive and engaged in what she was doing,” recalls Ron Kaufmann, her advisor and an associate professor of marine science and environmental studies. “She really wanted to go out and do something with her degree that would make a positive impact on the world.”

She’s done just that. In 2009, Hepp joined Pew, where she led the global shark conservation program for four years and helped to create a shark sanctuary in the Maldives in 2010. She also attends international meetings to promote shark conservation and advocate for new laws dictating how the animals are fished.

Hepp is now senior officer of international oceans, a role in which she not only supports sharks, but the management of all aspects of world oceans.

The statistics tell the story: Of the world’s 465 shark species, 141 species are “threatened” or “near-threatened” with extinction, according to Pew. Further, some species have declined by as much as 98 percent in the past 15 years, as increased demand for shark fin soup has depleted those populations. Each year, more than 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, Hepp says.

That can pose big trouble for ocean ecosystems, which rely on apex predators, such as sharks, to keep marine life in balance.

“What sharks and other top predators do in ecosystems is exert what ecologists call top-down regulation of a community,” Kaufmann says. “When you start to mess with the controls, you destabilize the ecosystem and get much more variability than would be normal.”

Sharks are credited with keeping ocean fish stocks healthy by preying on sick fish, which can prevent the spread of disease and unstable fish populations. Failure to control the food chain can also cause the ocean to become overrun with algae, scientists say. Algae blooms can sicken animals and humans alike.

“With all of the changes that are facing oceans — between pollution, climate change and acidification — protecting sharks is something that can be done now, and it can be done relatively easily,” says Hepp, who holds a master’s in conservation biology and sustainable development from the University of Maryland.

“We have faced a bit of a PR problem in terms of getting people to care,” she adds. “It’s often easier to care for something that is cute and cuddly, but a little bit of education goes a long way. People generally understand the idea of a food chain and that there’s a reason things are in an ocean ecosystem.”

Hepp has always had an affinity for water environments: growing up in Ohio, she sailed every weekend with her father at Grand Lake St. Marys State Park. Before joining Pew, she researched international fisheries management and wildlife trade for TRAFFIC, an organization that works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals isn’t a threat to the conservation of nature.

Few countries have laws protecting sharks, but there are signs of change. The Chinese government recently banned the consumption of shark fin soup by government officials at official banquets, “which sends a really strong message that shark populations are in trouble,” Hepp says.

In May, the British Virgin Islands became the 10th country to make its waters safe for sharks by banning commercial fishing of all shark species. The United States adopted the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which requires all caught sharks to be brought to shore with their fins “naturally attached.” (“Given all of the scientific and research capacity within the U.S., it could do a lot more,” Hepp laments).

In perhaps the biggest boost for shark conservation, in 2013 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora agreed to increase protections for five commercially exploited species
of sharks.

“Five to 10 years ago, it was the Wild West,” Hepp says. “You could take whatever you could, and there were no laws, generally.”

Hepp, though, is no ordinary sheriff. And for that, the sharks owe her their thanks. — Andrew Faught

To learn more, go online to www.pewenvironment.org.