Alex Antoniou lives in Colorado but was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. He now devotes his time and career to Fins Attached Marine Research and Conservation.
“The ocean is our lifeline, it provides us with our water, our oxygen and even our food. We must understand that if we are hurting the oceans, we are hurting ourselves too…” Alex Antoniou lives in Colorado but was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. When he was studying in the USA, he immersed himself into the salt waters and discovered his awe and fascination for sharks. He now devotes his time and career to Fins Attached, a non-profit organisation conducting research, promoting conservation and educating people about the importance of sharks for the marine ecosystem. Today, he shares his story.
Thank you for your time, Alex, can you tell me a bit more about your first memory of the Ocean?
I was born on the island of Cyprus, so growing up there is my strongest and fondest memory of the ocean. I remember going to the beach and watching the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea in summer. I remember little fish swimming in the shallow waters and I remember the feeling of the sand. Being by the ocean makes people happy. When I came to the USA to study, I learned how to scuba dive. That’s when I got really involved and literally and figuratively immersed myself into the ocean. I was eager to see sharks because of all the stories that were going around about them and movies like Jaws. But during my coursework and my diving, I found out that sharks are difficult to find and they’re not out to get us. When I finally saw one for the first time, it would keep swimming away from me. I became more educated and stopped listening to media-hypes and started to witness these beautiful creatures myself.
“We are not in this because we love to compete, we are in this because we love the ocean and want to make a change.”
It sounds like you have spent and are spending a lot of time in the ocean, what changes have you witnessing or are you witnessing?
I’ve been diving since the 80’s, so that is a relatively short period. But even within this short period, I see dramatic differences every time I go diving. In 2005, less than 20 years ago, I would go to places like the Cocos Island by Costa Rica. It’s a place famous and almost iconic for its scalloped hammerheads populations. I remember witnessing such an incredible abundance of them and seeing how they use some areas as cleaning stations. We had some really close and magical encounters. But now, that has all changed. You see longline fishers waiting by the edges of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for the sharks to migrate out. Additionally, the temperatures of the water are rising, causing the sharks to move to deeper and cooler waters. And then there’s pollution and habitat destruction. Coastal development and fisheries have moved into the former shark nurseries and habitats, there is hardly any space left for the sharks. Fisheries have bycatch of young sharks but they also target them, which really affects the entire population. MPAs should be placed around the nurseries of the sharks so that they can mature and swim out to the open ocean. It’s sad to think that all of this has happened in the short timeframe between 2005 and now.
And how do these changes affect you?
I am affected on several fronts. Morally and emotionally, because I keep questioning how we have allowing this to happen as a generation. It seems like most of what we do as humans is impacting our planet negatively. Both in the ocean and on the land. People don’t fully understand the connection between everything yet. I live in Colorado, but I know the ocean affects me there. It is not just morally and emotionally, but from a life standpoint as well. The ocean is our lifeline, it provides us with our water, our oxygen and our food. We must understand that if we are harming the oceans, we are hurting ourselves. It doesn’t matter where you live, the ocean impacts you every day. In some places these effects are more visible than in others. Unfortunately, some people don’t think or worry about it, which makes sense because they simply don’t know. When you educate them and bring them out of their ignorance, you start witnessing a change. Once people realize what we’re doing, real change can start happening!
What do you personally do to shift these changes positively?
I have been involved in shark research and shark conservation for over 20 years now. It is one of those feelings of passion and love you feel when you see something that just doesn’t feel right that compels you to act. You feel this call that you should do something about it. In 2010, I founded Fins Attached as a non-profit research organisation to conduct research, promote conservation and provide education for the protection of marine ecosystems, and today we are growing internationally. We’re getting the message across that better ocean conservation is beneficial to all living beings on this planet and that sharks are a very important element of ocean conservation. We’re not just collecting data or publishing papers, we’re using this data to go up to policymakers and governments to convince them of the importance of enacting global policy changes and cooperation among nations. Although Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a good solution, we need networks of them as sharks are migratory species that move from one place to the other. It’s no longer about one country alone banning shark fishing.
My work has all been voluntary, that’s what happens when you have a passion. You do things for no money. My philosophy is that everything we do should be for a better tomorrow, for future generations. I don’t want to do anything that is not meaningful or impactful. And of course, sometimes you won’t succeed, which is part and parcel of taking risks, but at least you are trying.
“I have been involved in shark research and shark conservation for over 20 years. It is one of those feelings of passion and love you feel when you see something that just does not feel right that compels you to act.”
And what do you think are good solutions for better preservation of the ocean?
We can find solutions when governments come together to develop international cooperation. An example is the triangle between Cocos Islands of Costa Rica, Malpelo Island of Colombia and the Galapagos by Ecuador, which are part of the Tropical Eastern Pacific. This triangle is called the Shark Triangle. Data has shown that sharks migrate between these islands. They are moving from island to island along swimways. It would be huge to get governments to protect these swimways and to have enforcement to keep long line fishers out. That would be an immense step in the right direction, and we’re trying to sit everyone around the table to get this done.
Another significant solution would be reducing the demand for shark products. Economics are the engine that drives this world in a continuous cycle of supply and demand. If there is demand for a product, someone will make sure to supply it. As long as the demand is there for shark fin soup, cosmetic products or supplements made from sharks, people will bring it to the table one way or another. This is where we need to educate people to reduce the demand, there’s an ignorance that needs to be targeted.
“Although Marine Protected Areas are a good solution, we need networks of them as sharks are migratory species that move from one place to the other. It’s no longer about one country alone banning shark fishing.”
What will the ocean look like in 2030 according to you?
I fear thinking of it, to be honest. If I allow it to get to me, I get depressed. I’m afraid that we will continue the path that we are on. But I hold up hope. If we don’t, we may as well start packing our bags and quit. We must have hope that there are enough people on this planet that care and believe that together we can save this planet. Sometimes, when I almost lose hope, suddenly something happens. Suddenly you see something positive of the impact you are making or a change in the ones you are trying to educate and that gives me the courage to keep going. Every day, we must get up and wonder: what am I going to do today that will make the world a better place?
Thank you, Alex, you are an Ocean Witness now. What do you want to say to other Ocean Witnesses out there witnessing changes and trying to make a positive impact?
Let’s all come together. This is not a competition about who can save more or who can collect more money. We are not in this because we love to compete, we are in this because we love the ocean and want to make a change. If we are all in our own corners doing our own thing we can never be as effective as we can be when we come together and make a collaborative effort.
“We must have hope that there are enough people on this planet that care and that believe that together, we can save this planet.”
Alex Antoniou lives in Colorado but was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. When he was studying in the USA, he immersed himself into the waters along the coast and discovered his awe and fascination for sharks. He now devotes his time and career to Fins Attached Marine Research and Conservation. The mission of Fins Attached is to conduct research, promote conservation and provide education for the protection of marine ecosystems. The health of any ecosystem is controlled largely by its predators. So, while Fins Attached aims to impact the marine ecosystem as a whole, much of the research is focused on the predators of the marine environment: sharks.
Want to read more about the importance of sustainable fishing? Click here to see what our Ocean Witness Pavs from South Africa has to say. Curious to find out more about researching the oceans inhabitants? Click here to read the story of Ocean Witness Chris, who travelled to the Antarctic to tag minke whales to find out more about their behavior.