The Australian teenager on a mission to protect ragged-tooth sharks


With a menacing smile, needle-like teeth, and a pointed, pointy snout, a gray nurse shark is not a creature most people would want to encounter. But Shalise Leesfield isn’t most people.

The 16-year-old Australian couldn’t think of a better creature to encounter while scuba diving off South West Rocks, near her home in Port Macquarie, a coastal town north of Sydney.

“I know there’s a huge stigma around their creepy looks, but I promise you they’re the cutest animals ever,” she says. “They are so docile and curious, they are like the Labradors of the sea.”

Slow-moving sharks, which like to dwell near the seabed in warm, shallow waters, are – for the most part – harmless to humans. But the gray nurse shark (also known as the sand tiger shark and the ragged-toothed spotted shark) is under threat. Populations have fragmented, habitats have been lost due to warming oceans and human development, and intensive fishing has caused a huge decline in numbers, according to the IUCN, which lists the species as critically endangered. ‘extinction.

Australian teenager is making the ocean safer for sharks


– Source: CNN

One area where they can still be spotted is Fish Rock, an underwater cavern with a vibrant and unique ecosystem, 40 miles up the coast from the home of Leesfield.

Diving through the 410-foot-long tunnel, among pink gorgonian corals and sponge gardens, is an “adrenaline rush,” says Leesfield. In addition to gray nurse sharks, whales, stingrays, groupers and many other marine species can be observed here.

But recreational, professional, and charter anglers are allowed access within 200 meters (656 feet) of Fish Rock, as long as they use special vegetable-based bait. This leads to a decline in biodiversity and an increase in pollution, says Leesfield. She wants to expand the no-take zone, establishing a 1,500-meter (5,000-foot) protected “sanctuary zone” to mirror studies that have found gray nurse sharks migrating to this point.

His campaign has already seen the area designated as the Hope Spot, part of the Mission Blue program started by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle which identifies places as critically important to ocean health and supports protection. This helped raise awareness of the fragility of the area and the gray nurse sharks, says Leesfield.

Gray nurse shark numbers have declined in recent years, leading to the species being listed as critically endangered.

“When people think of Hope Spots, they think of Sydney Harbor or the Great Barrier Reef… so getting Fish Rock up on that platform is amazing news,” she says. “I like to call Fish Rock a beacon of hope for these sharks, because it’s their home…It’s just such a crucial place for them and not having protection for such an important habitat, it’s is devastating.”

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Currently, Leesfield is working with politician Cate Faehrmann, MP and maritime spokesperson for the Australian Greens party in New South Wales, to legalize shark protection and implement a no-take zone in the area.

Faehrmann explains that Fish Rock is a key breeding ground for gray nurse sharks. “It needs to be protected to ensure the shark’s survival,” she says, adding that she is proud to have worked with Leesfield. “Shalise is part of a new generation of environmental activists and our future is much brighter thanks to their passion and determination to save our planet and our precious wildlife.”

For someone fresh from high school, that sounds like an impressive feat, but Leesfield’s conservation record goes beyond protecting gray nurse sharks.

At the age of 11, after seeing the damage plastic pollution can cause to the marine environment, she launched a campaign calling for the installation of fishing line collection bins in her area, to reduce the ocean pollution. This resulted in a government environmental grant worth over AUS$75,000 ($48,000).

Shalise Leesfield has been an environmental activist since the age of 11.

She has since founded “Shalise’s Ocean Support” which aims to inspire people to care for the environment, and launched a “Plastic Free Schools” website which advises teachers and students on reducing school waste.

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Leesfield’s dedication to the cause stems from a deep love of the ocean that developed from his kayaking and scuba diving experiences.

“I guess falling in love with the sea over time made my passion grow and made me stand up for what I really love,” she says.

She believes that the younger generation needs to get out of the mindset that saving the environment is something that should be “left to the adults”.

“We are the ones who will inherit the Earth and the ocean,” she says.

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