Shark lover and founder of “The Global Shark Conservation Initiative” Veerle Roelandt: »Our oceans are so beautiful, there is so much to learn still, we just can’t keep using them as our trash can. “Jaws” was just a movie, the animal was just a plastic gadget, this is not at all what sharks are like, don’t fear them, fear for them!.«
Veerle Roelandt from Belgium is a passionate diver and sharks have always been on top of her bucket list. It happened on her first diving trip to Cocos Island, Costa Rica (Island of the sharks) that Vee became aware of the trouble sharks are in.
We met Veerle in January 2015 for an interview in Dusseldorf, Germany
Stop Finning DE: So who are you?
Veerle: I am Veerle Roelandt, better known as Vee, as my name is a very difficult typical Flemish name. Not many people in the world can pronounce the “r” and “l” after each one another. So we just leave it as Vee.
Stop Finning DE: Are you diving and if so how long?
Veerle: Yes, I am a diving instructor, but I don´t dive for living, it is just a hobby. I think I dive for around 20 years now; we used to run a dive school on top of our other business, but health issues decided otherwise.
Stop Finning DE: Based on your relation to water do you eat sea food?
Veerle: I used to eat a lot of sea food, but that has changed. I am not a complete vegetarian, but I eat very little meat or fish and only if I know that it has been caught sustainably or meat that has been raised ethically. A label alone isn’t enough; I need to know that it really is ok. I always inform myself and don´t eat it in restaurants where I cannot get the guarantee it is sustainable. I never eat shrimps, tuna or shark.
Stop Finning DE: What is your job?
Veerle: After 25 years of owning our own bakery, I now make my living as the responsible for the bakery division in a supermarket.
Veerle: It really started on a diving holiday, on the first diving holiday we took to Cocos Island (Costa Rica). You have to know we are water geeks, I dive, my husband dives, my son dives. Every holiday is diving holiday for us. My son was really fascinated about sharks, dolphins and whales since he was little and he said “we really, really need to go to Cocos Island”. A few years later the three of us ended up there. On the island you will find a bridge, made of buoys, hooks and lines: all confiscated fishing gear. There are hooks and buoys all around the island. When I saw all the hooks and lines, I thought “Oh my god, how many sharks do they kill on these hooks” and that is just one place on earth. So I came home, started searching on the internet for sharks, shark fishing, shark finning and there I saw the numbers of sharks being killed each year and I just couldn’t believe it. It is mind blowing. We travel around the world to see sharks, but when we don´t do anything there will be no sharks left within the next years. So you could say, my reasons were a little bit selfish ;-). I wanted to see sharks, so I started fighting for sharks. I signed up at Facebook and got in contact with like-minded people. One of the first I met was Katrien Vandevelde. She was already active in shark conservation. And one thing lead to the other and Katrien and I founded “The Global Shark Conservation Initiative” (TGSCI).
Stop Finning DE: What was your first shark encounter?
Veerle: The first one was in Egypt. It was a Whitetip Reef Shark.
Stop Finning DE: How did you feel at your first encounter? Where you frightened?
Veerle: Oh no, they are so gracious and so beautiful. They seem to swim without any effort. They are curious and sometimes come closer to check you out but most of the time they are more afraid of you than you are of them. It’s fascinating. For me sharks are fascination, graciousness, beauty, mystery…
Stop Finning DE: Do you have some advices for diver’s first shark encounter?
Veerle: Stay calm and look at the sharks. Enjoy what you see because every encounter is a special moment under water, you are one of a lucky few!
Stop Finning DE: Tell us about a special encounter with a shark!
Veerle: There was one time I was really overwhelmed and yeah maybe just a bit scared too. We were doing a reef dive in Egypt. During the safety stop I thought “What is happening?” all the little fish were shooting away. As I looked to the side I looked straight into in the face of a hunting shark and thought “Oh shit – that shark is too close.” I could really have, if I had wanted to, touch its teeth. I will probably never forget that moment with this Silvertip Shark! I thought “I am not a dentist, you can go now!”
Veerle: I must say, I am rather under the water, than on top of it. Injured fish often come to the surface and that is what sharks are looking for. I do not want to be in between the sick fish and the hunting shark. Under the surface I always feel safer, I never have the feeling “Oh shit, what is happening?”, the surface is not my favorite place, because one cannot see what’s happening around you, I hate swimming without my dive mask and not seeing anything.
Stop Finning DE: So what is your favorite shark species?
Veerle: Oh that is difficult. My top three are Hammerheads, especially when they shoaling. Tiger sharks, they are such big gracious animals and Silvertips. Oh and can I add thresher sharks as well?
Stop Finning DE: When have you decided to actively spend your time on shark conservation?
Veerle: Well, right after I came back from Cocos Island. I was so overwhelmed from all those hooks and I knew I had to find time for it no matter what – there is no more time to be wasted!
Stop Finning DE: Was it a changing point in your life?
Veerle: Yes it was. Not only because I became aware of the situation of the sharks. With that came the awareness for the situation of the oceans. And then I realized we are ruining this planet.
Stop Finning DE: You are probably aware of the problems of by-catch, finning and the industrial shark fisheries. Do you think that the protection of sharks is as important, as other environmental issues, like deforestation of rainforest?
Veerle: I think every species, whether on land or in the ocean has its importance. They all have a function, from the smallest to the largest, so shark conservation is equally important to other topics. It is not because sharks are less “adorable” than dolphins that they don’t need our attention.
Stop Finning DE: In terms of shark killing most people think of Costa Rica, Taiwan or Spain. But there are many others. Which countries play a major role for the conversation?
Veerle: When I first started shark finning was the biggest problem, but I realized that it is just one problem. The biggest problem is shark fishing (intended or as by-catch, industrial or recreational). So it is a global problem, never point at one nation, we are all part of the problem, so we have to face it together.
Stop Finning DE: Do you think that there is a country which positively stands out from the others when it comes to shark protection?
Veerle: There is not one for me that really stands out. There are lots of countries that are trying to do something. Some of them you really have to admire for the laws and rules they try to establish. But as always, if you implant a rule, you also have to enforce it. And that is a big problem. Costa Rica has done theoretically a lot for sharks, but nothing is being done to enforce the laws. Many countries have good intentions, but it is not just the intention that counts, there has to be more enforcement.
Stop Finning DE: What do you think is the most efficient way to protect sharks?
Veerle: A worldwide combined protection because oceans have no borders. So we need combined effort. The focus in protection has to be on the commercial fishing industry. The problem is not the fisherman in his small boat, fishing to feed his family. The problems are the trawlers emptying the oceans. The solution is sustainable fishing.
Stop Finning DE: As a last question, what is your advice, what can people do for shark protection?
Veerle: Inform yourself; be aware of what is happening. Do not just read an article, start researching! Make sure you have facts you can trust on and take out the message to as much people as you can. One or two things you say might remain with a few of those people. There are too many people who are not aware. If they realize and start caring, they will start protecting! You cannot expect people to love and protect sharks, when they don´t even know what a shark really is and what the importance of sharks is.
Stop Finning DE: Thank you, Vee.
Veerle: You’re welcome.
More informatin`s about Veerle, her work and projects: http://www.tgsci.org