The Jaws of Life: A Success Story About Saving Sharks

The Cook Islands in the South Pacific are keeping their shark populations healthy with a new sanctuary.
A grey reef shark cruising through the waters near Tahiti. (Paul and Paveena Mckenzie/Getty)
Feb 14, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Jessica Cramp is the epitome of an adventurous young woman. After working as a biologist for a drug discovery laboratory in San Diego, she spent a year traveling and volunteering in Central America and then sailed across the Pacific, landing at Papeete harbor in Tahiti.

At the end of her journey, Cramp decided that she wanted to set down some roots and become part of a community. It was then that she came across a website for the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative, a non-governmental organization that works in the tropical pacific to preserve species, habitats and communities. “I wrote an email to Stephen Lyon, the founder of PICI and a few days later I was there,” Cramp tells TakePart.

“PICI was a new NGO which consisted of Steve’s brain part-time and a turtle biologist who was on a very remote northern atoll,” she says. “I agreed to stay six months as the volunteer Program Manager. I was keen to give my all to the organization to see where we could go. And of course, I was keen to work on the shark sanctuary.”

The establishment of the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary was a major focus of PICI. Concerned about the serious decline of sharks worldwide, and the slaughter of the fish for the lucrative Asian shark fin trade, PICI worked with the local community and government to pass legislation in December 2012 declaring the Cook Islands’ waters a shark sanctuary.

“Sharks are considered guardians by many families in the Cook Islands,” says Cramp. “The most prominent legend is of Ina and the Shark—also present on the Cook Islands three-dollar note. The cliff notes version is that Ina was a beautiful young teenager who fell in love with an eel, who turned out to be a prince. She needed to travel to another island, so she rode on the back of a shark who was her protector and took her safely all the way to the other island.”

That’s not to say that establishing the shark sanctuary was an easy task. “There was, and remains, a lot to learn from being humble and respectful, two very important themes in Cook Islands culture,” says Cramp. “The islands still have traditional leaders who are savvy on the Crown governance system, while having a strong voice for their traditional style of leadership. We needed the support of both government and traditional leaders—born and bred Cook Islanders to support the plan.”

“We were blessed with an extremely diverse and influential set of supporters whom we called ‘Shark Ambassadors’ and we would not have been successful without them,” she adds. “We wanted them to be the face of the campaign and have Cook Islanders see other Cook Islanders asking for their support and explaining why protecting sharks was important.”

PICI’s community consultations took place over 18 months and its members went into people's homes, to churches, and held community meetings. They also gave presentations in schools and received letters and posters from children. But for Cramp, one of her most memorable experiences occurred on the island of Mitiaro.

“We were invited to stay in a woman’s home, and were accompanied by the President of the House of Ariki, the traditional leaders, which was a huge honor,” she says. “One of the elders stood up at the meeting and through a translator told us how much he hated the sharks, they were his worst enemy, stole his fish, stalked his canoe, and terrorized his livelihood.”

“As he went on, I sat at the front of the room feeling ridiculous for having come to ask for protection of sharks when more important resources are scarce. But then he said ‘But I support your work. I understand the shark’s place in the ecosystem and I support you.’ So here was a man who would have been happy if every shark in the ocean disappeared, yet he understood that this would have negative impacts on his grandchildren and so he encouraged the others to join in the movement.”

“Akono te Mango” is Cook Islands Maori for “Save the Sharks.” And, at least in this part of the world, that’s exactly what PICI has done.

How can we encourage governments in other parts of the world to establish shark sanctuaries?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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