Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Power of a Picture

Last summer I was teaching a photo course in my home waters off Key Largo, visiting one of my traditional favorite sites, Snapper Ledge. There, amid the massive schools of blue-striped grunts and schoolmaster snappers, was a lone nurse shark, curiously lethargic on the bottom. It was not until I got closer that I realized this shark had been stabbed in the head and eviscerated, probably by an unthinking and definitely uncaring fisherman. Tragic as this was, it was actually the second time I'd seen such a thing done to a nurse shark on this same site, and began to feel that something had to be done about it.

A few days later we went back to the same site, and found this same shark, dead and pale on the bottom. I took a picture, thinking at the time people simply had to see what was going on here.

I wrote about the whole event on my personal blog at, with the recommendation that Snapper Ledge become a Sanctuary Preservation Area, protected from spearfishing and hook-and-line angling ... a total no-take zone. It is a very special place, it is being abused, and it deserves that level of protection.

It then got picked up by Eric Cheng, who posted it on his website and authored a compelling and conservation-minded petition at Dive Photo Guide and other photographic and marine preservation websites linked to the petition as well, and soon the petition became very viral and highly visited. As of this day, 2,528 people have signed this petition to make Snapper Ledge a SPA. It is interesting to see many of the very high-profile people who have signed this petition, and also the level of passion clearly evident in so many of the individual comments. The whole level of response was very heart-warming to me, and reassuring to know so many cared so deeply about the health of our coral reefs in general, and Snapper Ledge in particular.

Scuba Diving Magazine came on-board big time, with space in their reader forums and a generous home page slot linking to a lovely video that underwater videographer Frazier Nivens shot in support of the Snapper Ledge SPA initiative, see

I won't say this project has been without some level of angst and controversy. Some spearfishing enthusiasts thought I was unfairly picking on them. Others felt any regulation was bad regulation. But, my point was always that Snapper Ledge was geologically unique for the massive schools of fish concentrated here, and it had to be protected for future generations.

Fortunately, NOAA agreed with me and the other 2,500+ people who signed the petition and agreed to include SPA designation for Snapper Ledge in their upcoming planning for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In the words of Commander David Score, director of the FKNMS, "As you know, at the last meeting the Sanctuary Advisory Council discussed Snapper Ledge again and recommended we move forward with a SPA designation alternative for it included in the overall marine zoning update that was recommended as part of the new management plan. They urged me to convey their thanks to you and everyone who took action on this issue. The attached letter is an attempt to do that but will not be able to capture the amount of appreciation we have for your efforts on behalf of the critters of the Keys."

The point is that it Snapper Ledge will become a SPA. It won't happen overnight, as there are governmental protocols that must be satisfied. I knew that when I began the process, but also recognized that NOAA was very sensitive to the desires of their constituency, the various user groups diving and snorkeling and fishing the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Actually, they have been extraordinarily proactive on this issue, which I sincerely appreciate.

I am very gratified that a few photos sparked a firestorm of outrage and that good will ultimately come of it. Such is the power of a photo, coupled with the power of the web.

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