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Podcast exploring sharks with Francesca Trotman

Written by Zoe Faulkner on 01 / 09 / 2020

Gap Year Advice

Welcome to the third episode in our series A Road Less Travelled, where we seek out brave and inspiring individuals who are doing extraordinary things. They’ve said no to living an ordinary life and have set up something completely wonderful overseas and portray to us how powerful travel is to feed the soul, open the mind and build our resilience.

In today’s hot seat we have Francesca Trotman who lives on the beach of Mozambique. She has been there alone since lockdown living the Tom Hanks Castaway life. With only a lizard whom she’s called Wilson to keep her company for the last few weeks.

So welcome Francesca - our 27 year old marine biologist who relocated to Mozambique the day after graduation to literally save the shark. Having witnessed the cruelty of the fin industry in these waters in her early uni days, she has set up a non-profit organisation called Love The Oceans. Recently she was awarded one of the most influential environmental initiatives from around the world awarded by Prince Harry and Meghan.

In brief:

What do Love The Oceans do?

How did you start it?

Why are volunteers needed?

What is shark exploitation?

The podcast in all its glory:

Why sharks, where did the obsession come from?

For me, sharks are fascinating. It stemmed from a fear that turned into a fascination. I grew up watching Jaws and all the films that scaremonger and then I went to the London aquarium for my 8th birthday and was absolutely fascinated pressed up against the glass. I loved it. I devoured Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough documentaries and then I learn to dive at 13. When it came to uni I didn’t look that much into what I wanted to do, I just knew I was interested in the underwater world, so I chose Marine Biology, went to Southampton University and did my masters then founded the organisation while I was at uni.

Sharks had always been a fascination, then it moved on from sharks in general to the exploitation of the species as a whole. I am now most interested in the exploitation of sharks and the socio-economic links there as well. We use a very holistic approach with our work, so we like to work alongside humans and work out why we do the things we do and how we harm the environment.

When you went to Mozambique to volunteer while at uni, was that your first insight into the shark fin industry?

Yes. I came here doing a photography internship and it just happened that there was an active shark fishery next to our dive centre in the same bay we are based in now. It was the first time I’d seen sharks being killed in real life, obviously I’d seen it on documentaries and read books, but it is completely different when you see an animal being killed right in front of you. I’ve dived with sharks before, I did my dive master the year before I came here in the Caribbean but coming here really showed the exploitation in real life.

What actually happens to the sharks?

The type of fishing here is gill netting and long lining so gill netting is a net you put in the water with weights at the bottom and floats at the top and anything that swims into it dies. It can catch turtles, dolphins, manta rays and some juvenile sharks. Then long line fishing is specifically for sharks, a really long line linked with buoys and off that line you have other lines with hooks on with bait, so sharks bite them then drown as they need to swim to ventilate so if they’re on the hook they are unable to swim. That’s the targeted fisheries so they will bring them in sometimes with the whole body. There are two terms shark finning and shark killing – shark killing is when you land the whole body which happens a lot here and finning is when you bring just the fin without the body.

So, they just take the fins, left to die?

Yes, it’s pretty barbaric. Mozambique culture you don’t have pets, it is a luxury no one can afford so there is not that empathy towards animals that you would have in a developed world and no education around sharks or marine life here only us doing workshops. Imagine leaving school at 12, you’ve never had a pet before, never had an education on sharks – you are not going to be very sympathetic towards sharks. The reason they are catching the sharks is for the Chinese shark fin trade, they are the middleman selling them on getting a fraction of what they would get in the Hong Kong market. It is just a job to them; they don’t have any empathy to the animals or education towards the exploitation and sustainability of it. It’s important not to vilify the fisherman and be angry because they don’t know any different and they have grown up with it.

When the full shark bodies land on the beach they can be alive or dead. We had an alive tiger shark that was 3ft long – it’s insides had been cut out because it was too heavy to get on the boat so they strapped the shark to the side of the boat and cut down it’s centre so that it’s insides would fall out during the boat ride. They pull it off the boat and take it up to the dunes and it was still alive even with no fin and all its insides out. The fins are harvested for the fin trade and the meat is harvested for food which is another issue in itself. Shark meat has a high level of mercury which can be poisonous – another area we are trying to work it. Teeth are used to sell to tourists – I always discourage people from buying teeth. I wear on my necklace which is from an alive shark that sheds it teeth naturally and it was from the sea floor, do not buy it from beach vendors. The skin is used to sharpen knives, the whole body is utilised so morally it’s more sustainable, but sharks are very unsustainable animals so are fish anyway because they have long lives and don’t reproduce often so their population is vulnerable to collapsing. The rates that they are being caught at are unsustainable and that is something we are working towards. We collect the vertebrae to work out how old they are (like rings in trees) to see if it is juvenile, adult, how sustainable it is, what species is being caught. It holds a lot of information.

After seeing all this you thought I’m going to come out here and do something about this. Where did you begin?

I was out here doing my masters and then I was writing up my thesis on the sustainability and fin industry. I came out here in 2013 on a photography internship and then came back in 2014 to research and do my thesis spending 4 months with the fisherman learning about the finning industry. I wrote it up and then in November 2014 when I was getting the results and needed more data, so I created a team and looked into ways of funding us all being out there and the project. I looked into conservation strategies and creating long lasting change and basically, I realised it needed to be this multi-pronged approach. It couldn’t just be ‘stop the shark fishing’ so there has to be other ways. Then I changed the mission to ‘stopping the shark fin trade’ to establishing a marine intensive area here meaning that the shark fin trade stops here, and it will offer protection for a lot of the other marine life and habitats too. Setting up the organisation, I gave myself a 3-day panic period where I’d stress about setting up the website, or a bank account and then once that 3 days was up, I would just get on with it.

So, you set it up Love The Oceans and now you’ve created the marine protected area and now you've turned your attention to education and finding alternative methods of income for the communities. That’s what you get all the volunteers to do so it’s approaching and attacking the whole livelihood?

Andrea our director came on board one year into the project having worked in corporate before, so she had a very different view, but she helped shape the financial side of it. We joke and say I’m the science and she is the socio-economic and community work side but really, we do both. She helped with logistics and community work and now we have a very holistic approach where our attitude is that humans are so often part of the environmental problem, so they need to be part of the solution and having human part of the solution. By identifying barriers that stand in people’s way of living sustainably is a really important part of successful conservation. The reason people illegally poach isn’t because they are bad people it’s because they have no other option. If you can provide an education as to why what they are doing is harmful for the environmental and their future generations as well as being able to provide an alternative to that unsustainable activity the hope is that people will optionally change to a more sustainable way of living. We are seeing that in action at the moment. We develop a project with the elders who are the heads of each communities (like a mayor) who have such local knowledge and it means then that once they are interested in what we are saying it will come from within, it is no good me implanting my British morals on them when it is part of their culture and value it coming from the head of the community who wants to make a real change. This makes it much longer lasting. We are working on a fishing project with the local fisherman who have said if they were able to get further out to sea pole and line fishing, they would be able to get carnivorous fish tuna mackerel etc which are much more sustainable than the herbivores. The barrier here is that the fishermen can’t get further out to sea, they don’t have the money for a kayak or a pole and line fishing rod so that is where we are working on at the moment. One example of what we are doing in real time to identify a barrier and remove it to more towards a more sustainable way of living. The fishermen are on board with it and would love it, it is better food with more meat for them.

The volunteers that come to you help - woudl you say they contribute financially and physically with their labour?

All our volunteers get as much experience as possible by rotating them through different activities each week. It means we get constant data coverage and community work meaning we can achieve our mission. We do fishery research, humpback whale research, coral reef research and ocean trash, whale shark and manta ray research. The ocean trash is looking at what’s washing up on the shores and how we can reduce it.

Can you see how far the trash has come in from?

Yes, lots come with logos and we look it up and often from Indonesia. Not surprising where we are, and the ocean current brings it over. They are one of the biggest contributors to ocean plastic.

When you are researching the whales and sharks are you in the water with them swimming or in a boat?

Swimming, for whale sharks you can snorkel near them. For humpback whales you have to be on the boat. Whale sharks are plankton feeders so really beautiful deep blue with white spots, and they are gentle giants amazing to swim with.

Have you ever swum with a great white?

No, but I would love to. It’s on my bucket list, I would really enjoy that. I would love to swim with a tiger shark too – free diving not in a cage.

When you scuba a lot of the sharks are scared by you, you produce a lot of bubbles and have a massive tank, fins on your feet so they don’t come close.

Tell us about Harry and Meghan and that award. You had no idea you were even entering it.

It was during July 2019 and I was in the house, our followers had tagged us in this picture. It was a deep blue background with white writing and said tag your force for change. I assumed it was a marine organisation because of the blue and shared it asking to be tagged. I didn’t think anything of it, there’s always competitions on Instagram and then a month later my phone went off the hook. I opened it on Instagram, and we had 1,000 more followers and Sussex royal Instagram account had selected us as one of their global forces for change, I still didn’t know who they were – so had a google and couldn’t believe it. We were doing a fundraiser at the time doing a fundraiser for a community pool because at the moment we use a resorts pool and it is long to get to and limits the number of kids we can teach. We received a donation from ‘Archie MBW’ for £5,000 and it was amazing, Meghan rang Andrea and donated to the fundraiser so we can build the pool. We are forever grateful. Andrea thought it was a hoax – said she’d tell the receptionist she’d call her back!

I’m really passionate about people understanding the wider benefits of travel. Why is travel so good for resilience?

For me one of the most important things that has kept me going is being a guest in a community I didn’t grow up with. I don’t speak their language; they have different values to our western ways. There are no magazines, newspapers, radios here – the value here is based on what you bring to the table in terms of your personality who you are as a person. It is a grounding experience. It reminds me what is important in life. Family, making an honest living, health and being there for each other. That is what has made me most resilient. I know and love the people I work with and this community and I know that if I gave up all the benefit of what we do stops. We teach people to swim and saving lives, we give children and education and I don’t want that to stop. Spending 6 months here centres my brain to the correct way of thinking, I know what is important and travel really allows you to re-centre your view on what’s important. As a volunteer you get right under the skin of the country, you are welcomed into the community so much more and learn a lot. It makes you more aware of where you are and what makes it unique.

My last question is when you’re out and about what do you never leave home without?

My insulated water bottle!

I used to have a stainless-steel bottle, but insulated bottles are the way forward. Iced water after a long day of doing chores in town even if I leave the bottle in the car.

Your season at Love The Oceans starts next March. I’m launching The Leap VIP so as soon as the borders open, we will send them your way.

Listeners/Readers check it out and let’s support this incredible cause.

Take me to Leap VIP

I would love to get involved with this shark project.

Find out more

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