Jessica Cramp, Marine Conservationist

Picture of Jessica Cramp holding a shark
Photograph by Andy Mann

Jessica Cramp, Marine Conservationist

How a Young American Gave Up Everything to Protect Sharks in the Pacific

Jessica Cramp grew up far from the ocean, in Pennsylvania, but had always been drawn toward the water and adventure. Though her job in a pharmaceuticals lab was a good one, it wasn't the life she wanted. So, at the end of a sailing trip through Polynesia, she cast caution to the wind and headed for the remote Cook Islands, where she helped create one of the world's largest shark sanctuaries.

Talking from San Diego, Cramp describes how a close encounter with a Pacific reef shark spurred her interest in marine conservation, why it's important not to be afraid of falling on your face when pursuing your dreams, and the small but significant bit of help she got from a presidential candidate. —Simon Worrall


You've only been in the shark conservation field for five years. How did you get involved?


I have always had a passion for the ocean. I had volunteered on a few ocean-related projects, then sailed across the Pacific with a group of friends doing plastics research. I was just beginning to learn about the plight of sharks and fisheries in general.

In the Pitcairn Islands, we were paddling surfboards back from an island where we were doing research, and someone shouted, "Jess! Turn around!" I had my mask on and looked around and there were five sharks within a meter of me. Strangely, I wasn't scared. I remember looking down and seeing these yellow eyeballs staring at me. [Laughs.] That was as close as I'd ever been to a shark. They followed my friend and me as we paddled back to the boat. I remember thinking, This is just such a cool experience.

When we got to Cook Islands, I wanted to stay. I gave myself 24 hours to see if I could find an organization that could use my help. Within 24 hours I found my home for the next few years, the Pacific Island Conservation Initiative [PICI].


In the Cook Islands, you spearheaded a campaign to establish a shark sanctuary. Tell us about the sanctuary and why it is important to protect sharks.


The Cook Islands are northeast of New Zealand, between French Polynesia, American Samoa, and Tokelau. I co-championed a project with Steve Lyon, the founder of PICI. The shark sanctuary was his idea. I don't know that they are the only answer, but they're a good first step in reducing shark mortality. Sharks are a major bycatch species in the tuna longline fishery. Sharks have a very low fecundity and sometimes only spawn once every two years.

The rate at which they're being fished is outpacing their reproductive capability. Several species are now critically endangered. Part of it is the interaction with the tuna and swordfish fisheries. A major driver is the demand for shark fins, the main ingredient in shark-fin soup, which is popular in Asia. They are also targeted for their meat and oil in other parts of the world. But it's not just Asia. When you order fish and chips in Spain, you may be getting shark. It's important to make people realize their importance in the ecosystem. In many instances, they are apex predators.

We know what's happened when we've taken apex predators out of land situations; we're not quite sure about the impact in the sea. Until we understand that, it's crucial that we don't fish sharks past their maximum sustainable yield.

The sanctuary is two million square kilometers [772,000 square miles]—the entire Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone. It is now illegal to import, export, barter, sell, trade, or possess any piece of shark there. The legislation was enacted on December 12, 2012, and to date there have been no prosecutions.


You had a bit of help from a current presidential candidate. Explain.


Auntie Hillary [Clinton], as they call her here in the Cook Islands, was then secretary of state. She came down for the Pacific Leaders Forum, which was held in Rarotonga. PICI had a booth right outside the forum and she came out for a group photo. I had been joking that I was going to go talk to her. Steve, my boss, said: "Good luck! You're going to get tackled by the CIA." I was on the periphery when she came out for the photo. She then started walking away in a herd of people toward her car. So, I yelled out: "Hillary, I'm American!" She stopped, turned, and literally pulled me out of the crowd.

For five minutes she walked around with me, listening to everything I was doing. We talked about sharks, and she said, "What can I do to help?" I said, "We're in the middle of a campaign to create a sanctuary. Would you show a sign for shark support with me by doing a photo?" There were cameras all around and she said: "Where do I look?" I couldn't believe Hillary Clinton was showing her support for sharks. [Laughs.] But it gave the campaign a big boost and got the attention of the prime minister.


You are currently developing your own organization, Sharks Pacific. What's its mission?


I'm currently working on a Ph.D. on the effectiveness of shark sanctuaries and marine reserves, so we can understand what works in reducing shark mortality. Sharks Pacific has been under development for two years. I don't have it set in stone, but it's to research sharks in the Pacific. That includes the ecosystem, so we don't just focus on sharks, but also on the fisheries that affect their plight. I think we can truly change the way sharks are fished and improve their conservation in my lifetime.


What do you love about sharks?


I love that they're mysterious and misunderstood. We just don't know a lot about them. They're also extremely charismatic and sexy, which means you can get people's attention. I call sharks the gateway drug to ocean science. If I go into a classroom and show kids a photo of me swimming with a shark, they're instantly captivated.


What would you say to a young woman thinking of getting into marine conservation but worried about making the leap?


I would say leap and the net will appear. On the Cook Islands, I was living in the back of a dive shop. I was in a lot of debt; I had sold everything I had and liquidated a 401K. My father was horrified. But in my gut, I knew that this was right for me and didn't want to give up. So my advice would be to start gaining skills. And don't be afraid; it's going to be scary and you're going to fall on your face. But if you stick with it, you can live the life you want.

In Their Words

Sharks are extremely charismatic and sexy, which means you can get people’s attention. I call sharks the gateway drug to ocean science.

—Jessica Cramp

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