There are many people in this world who love the ocean, however, not all of these people are doing their part to conserve it. But one woman, in particular, is doing her part and more in shark conservation. Her name is Madison Stewart AKA Shark Girl, and this is her story:
Madison grew up off the waters of Australia’s Gold Coast, and lived on a yacht starting at the age of two. When she was twelve years old, she became a certified open-water diver in Byron Bay. Madison became so passionate about the Great Barrier Reef that she switched to homeschooling so that she could devote more time to making the reef her true classroom.
There was one dive, in particular, that impacted Madison the most and shifted her priorities. One night, she decided to go diving where she had previously gone before and had encountered many sharks. However, this time, she only saw one shark, and it was too scared to come close to the boat. It swam off and left her in shock. She couldn’t believe the change she was seeing in the oceans she knew: “Wild animals were just something you expect to see every day, to the point where they become as normal as a house pet she said in an interview with Oceanographic Magazine.” She learned that the same sharks who had become like ‘pets’ to her had been caught and killed in legal shark fisheries. It was at this moment that fourteen-year-old Madison learned that the ocean was at risk, and she needed to do everything she could to protect it by bringing awareness to the declining shark population. This meant making other people see sharks the way she saw them.
Most people see sharks as merciless killers with bloodied and sharp serrated teeth. Thanks to movies like Jaws and TV shows like Shark Week and Sharkfest, people's misconceptions have grown even bigger and prevented them from admiring these beautiful and powerful creatures. People often find peace in their slaughter because of the fear that the media has instilled in them. But, it is impossible to understand how sharks really behave without seeing them in the wild.
This brings to mind the phrase ‘shark-infested waters.’ This term is used frequently by the media, especially in Cape Cod news. However, if you really think about the phrase, you’ll realize that it doesn't make sense. If sharks infest the water, that means that humans must infest the earth. No, humans inhabit the earth, as sharks inhabit the water. Sharks live in the ocean, it is us humans who are the frequent visitors, sometimes even the infestation. Humans should worry less about being attacked by sharks, and more about how many sharks are killed by humans.
Inside the only legal shark fishery in the Great Barrier Reef, 100,000 sharks can legally be harvested per year. By comparison, in 2019, the International Shark Attack File recorded 64 unprovoked attacks of humans and two fatalities. Sharks do not seek out humans, nor can they leave their natural habitat to venture on land to hurt us. It is humans, not sharks, who cause the most harm to the other species. For this reason, Madison has started making films about the true nature of these beautiful creatures to lessen human fear and make greater human awe and respect.
Madison primarily focuses her energy on stopping the shark-finning trade which is the gruesome practice of cutting off a live shark's fins and throwing them back to drown. Shark finning in Indonesia is legal and unregulated unlike places like the United States. They are known to kill more sharks than any other country in the world. According to David Lipson, 30% of the 117 known species of sharks in Indonesia are considered threatened/endangered. Often, the shark meat that is sold in Madison's homeland of Australia is not from their one legal fishery, but rather from unregulated fisheries in places like Indonesia. This is why she decided to go straight to the source, and ventured to Indonesia to try and protect their shark population.
Originally, she traveled to Indonesia, one of the leading shark producers in the world, to expose on film what is happening behind the fishing industries' closed doors, in the hopes of educating people and encouraging them to use their voices to advocate for sharks. In order to bring attention to these unregulated fisheries, Madison assumed a false identity as a ‘dumb tourist.’ Feigning ignorance enabled her to document footage of bloody shark carcasses and the identities of the fishermen who caught them. However, Madison learned something unexpected on her covert mission. She realized that the fishermen were not evil people rather, they were just people who were desperate to make a living, take care of their families, and had no viable alternative to shark fishing.
Madison started Project Hiu, which means ‘Shark’ in Indonesian, to provide alternate income to shark fishermen in Indonesia. Stewart hired the shark fishing boats and locals to engage the men in a tourist role. They educate the men and buyers about the critical importance of sharks and what would happen if they suddenly disappeared from our oceans. Instead of punishing the fishermen who didn’t see another way to support their families, Madison’s initiative is forging a new path forward to help them. Project Hiu’s website states: “The goal of Project Hiu is to improve conditions above and below the surface, and enforce the idea that one person, and one shark fishermen, can make a difference.”
Fish dishes are given many misleading names to hide the fact that they are shark meat. Stewart talks about “flake,” and explains that it is commonly used by fishmongers and fish & chips shops. When she buys the “flake,” she tests the meat to figure out which species of shark it belongs to. She often finds that it varies between bull, tiger, and other endangered species of shark. Because the indonesian government only considers nine types of sharks to be endangered and only one of those, the whale shark, to be fully protected, there is truly no chance for the population to rebound from their mindless slaughter.
Famous diver, Ocean Ramsey came out with a new book last year called What You Should Know About Sharks. In the book, she lists the common names that shark meat can often be listed under in fish markets and restaurants. Here are some of the names she lists: Moki, Cazon, Huss, Catfish, Dogfish, Grayfish, Steakfish, Whitefish, Lemon Fish, Cape Steak, Rock Salmon, Rigg, Gummy, Sea Ham, Sokomoro, Tofu Shark, Ocean Fish/filet, Imitation Crab Meat. Many of these names are used in cosmetics, supplements, and pet foods. Its usage is even being considered in the coronavirus vaccine! It’s important to be aware of this dishonest practice for personal dietary needs, but also because if these foods are not in high demand, it will help lessen the practice of shark-hunting.
As a fellow shark-lover, I appreciate the work of conservationists, but especially female conservationists. The scientific world is a very male-dominated industry, and to see a young, trailblazing woman heading up incredible projects like Project Hiu is inspiring. While I am in the education field and not the science field, I share incredible stories like Madison’s with my students. I hope these stories inspire them and show them that no matter their gender or age, they too, can do anything they set their mind to. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Madison's feature in Smithsonian magazine:
“The desire for change, a few small wins, and an ongoing supply of passion for sharks and the natural world is what drives me. I don’t do anything out of hatred or anger, or because I hate the people fishing for sharks. I do it because I love these creatures. And I am lucky enough to be aware that one person can make a difference—something I had to prove to myself, and once didn’t believe.”
Don't forget to check out her Documentary called 'Shark Girl' on the Smithsonian Channel!
Cover photo-Madison Stewart
1st Photo- Ernst Stewart
2nd photo- Vulture, Lionsgate, Columbia Pictures, and Warner Bros.
3rd photo- Twitter
4th photo-Reuters Photo/Sigit Pamungkas
Video- Madison Stewart
Ramsey, Ocean, and Juan Oliphant. What You Should Know about Sharks: Shark Language, Social Behavior, Human Inter-Actions and Life Saving Information. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2019.