Young Marine Conservationist Champions the Fish Rock Hope Spot in New South Wales to Protect Critically Endangered Grey Nurse Sharks
August 24, 2021
Header image: Justin Gilligan
SOUTH WEST ROCKS, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA (AUGUST 24TH, 2021)
A five hour drive north of Sydney, New South Wales, is South West Rocks, a coastal town that just 5,000 people call home. Below the surface of its sandy beaches and picturesque pine trees is a 125-meter long underwater tunnel with its own unique ecosystem that supports a habitat for the critically endangered grey nurse shark. Local SCUBA diver and ocean conservationist Shalise Leesfield has a goal to establish a 1500m radius marine protected area at Fish Rock to protect these sharks and hundreds of other marine species that call the underwater tunnel home. Leesfield hopes that the recognition of the Fish Rock Hope Spot will bring to light the condition of Australia’s Grey Nurse shark population and the lack of support awarded to their recovery.
At just 14 years old, Leesfield is Mission Blue’s youngest Hope Spot Champion to date. She says, “I am so excited to be working with Mission Blue to support this Hope Spot at Fish Rock. If we take action and protect as many marine habitats around the world as we can, we will help the ocean recover so it will be filled with life and safeguarded for future generations.”
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “Thank you, Shalise Leesfield, for being a champion for the ocean and for doing what you’re doing to inspire hope for a very special place called Fish Rock. Now, that’s a clue – if it’s called Fish Rock, it must mean this place is special for the fish, and as you have acknowledged, a special place for sharks.” She continues, “If we can secure protection for them, it gives them a better chance for surviving and thriving in the ocean. Valerie Taylor once identified a place in the Great Barrier Reef called Cod Hole, and her initiative established a special place in the Reef for the giant cod. You are doing something similar for the sharks of Fish Rock. I am so pleased to see you doing what you can; using your power to inspire people to take care of the ocean – one rock at a time. You have my full support to do whatever we can do to get full protection for this very special place.”
Leesfield describes the need for a marine protected area for Fish Rock. “My hope is to obtain a 1,500m radius sanctuary zone to reflect the CSIRO studies that found that the [grey nurse] sharks migrate to that point from the rocks and gutters where they aggregate. A sanctuary zone will give them the best chance of survival and give them some much needed and well-deserved additional protection and help to manage human interactions with this population of grey nurse sharks.”
Fish Rock, well known as one of the largest ocean caverns in the southern hemisphere, acts like a blue magnet attracting divers from around the world. It is equally famous for its high biodiversity. The shallow entrance of the cave is a large, naturally lit cavern fringed by pink gorgonian corals. An abundance of fish live around the rock as a result of the prevailing currents providing nutrients to the area, and sponge gardens provide shelter for many aquatic species. Fish Rock has one of the world’s most impressive annual whale migrations from May to November each year. Fish Rock also occasionally serves as a whale nursery in which mothers have been seen bringing their baby calves in for a rest along their migration route. “These huge mammals are an important piece of the health of this coastline”, says Leesfield.
Leesfield has an impressive track record as a young ocean conservationist. She was recently chosen by Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of the legendary underwater explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, to be a part of his Australian expedition and interviewed as part of his Youth In Action Program, in which she tells the story of how she got her local government involved in helping her reduce discarded fishing lines from the shoreline.
Philippe Cousteau, Jr., founder of EarthEcho International shares his support. “I am thrilled that Fish Rock in Australia has been designated a new Hope Spot in our ocean.” He continues, “At EarthEcho, we are building a global youth movement to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, with our campaign #OceanEcho30x30. Shalise’s hard work to establish this new Hope Spot is a testament to the extraordinary power that young people have to change the world.”
Parley for the Oceans selected Leesfield to be a part of their Ocean Uprise Team and she represented Australia at their International Youth Leadership Summit in Hawaii. Cyrill Gutsch, CEO of Parley for the Oceans, says, “We are very proud of Shalise in her efforts to highlight and protect this blue treasure in her home country. Fish Rock and other Hope Spots offer us vision in the vast blue universe – these incredibly special places show us what can be achieved when we give nature a chance. As a youth led initiative, this is a powerful moment exemplifying what we can achieve no matter your age. Parley is proud to call Shalise a collaborator and ally – for the oceans.”
Leesfield has support from Cate Faehrmann, MLC, Greens MP for NSW, an Australian politician and environmental activist. Faehrmann also served as the Chair of Sea Shepherd and the Director of The Nature Conservation Council. Faehrmann says, “This Hope Spot nomination will give Fish Rock the international recognition it deserves as one of the most magical places in NSW. It will also increase global pressure on the NSW Government to urgently act and protect the critical habitat area that these sharks need to survive and thrive in marine sanctuary zones.”
Today, overfishing and pollution are the biggest threats to Fish Rock. To this day, Fish Rock remains a multi-use area that allows recreational, professional and charter fishers access to fish in this “critical habitat protection area” to the detriment of a list of endangered species that aggregate at the site. There are some minor regulations that apply to fishing in this area. In this case, recreational fishers can lawfully fish within 200 meters of Fish Rock and Green Island if they agree to only use artificial and vegetable-derived bait within the Fish Rock Grey Nurse Shark Habitat Area. Unfortunately, this has allowed the numbers of grey nurse sharks in New South Wales (NSW) waters to have declined significantly. Currently, grey nurse shark numbers are so low that they are in danger of becoming extinct. Sharks are observed daily with fishing-related injuries, and their habitats have been littered with discarded fishing tackle. Fishing in the area has depleted the shark’s food sources as well.
Concerns of the conservation status of grey nurse sharks were raised in the 1980s, resulting in the species becoming protected in NSW in 1984. By 1984, they were deemed on the brink of extinction in NSW, and declared critically endangered on the East Coast of Australia, making them the first shark in the world to be granted this protection status.
Valerie Taylor is a pioneering ocean explorer and was the first person to swim in Fish Rock. She describes the importance of protecting Fish Rock, “For a diver it was a hot spot offering beauty, adventure and excitement. Today it is still a great dive but due to man’s destructive ways, much of what made Fish Rock one of the best dives in our coastal waters has been sadly degraded.” She continues, “For a short few years, the area around the rock was protected, but that protection has been removed because fishermen having fished out other similar places lobbied successfully to have this pristine jewel open to the detrimental so-called sport of killing fish. I believe if we don’t act now to have our special marine hot spots fully protected, we stand to lose what little remains of what once was a perfect marine wilderness.” Taylor has a new documentary called Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story on Disney Plus.
Peta Pinson, Mayor, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, voices her support for protection of Fish Rock. “Being granted a Hope Spot on the Mid North Coast has only been made possible through the dedication of our young Lake Cathie conservationist Shalise Leesfield and her foundation, Ocean Support. This rare opportunity through the Mission Blue Council will ensure that Fish Rock is recognised as another beacon of hope for the preservation of our unique eco-system and the sanctuary it offers the multitude of marine life that frequent our waters.”
Shalise elaborates, “Being members of a coastal town, we have an obligation to protect and safeguard the ocean. Australia is the world’s only island continent, and about 85% of our population lives within 50 kilometers of the coast – meaning that every Australian needs to understand the vital role our oceans play in our lives. Our own quality of life on this planet depends on our ability to do our part to heal our blue backyard.”
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About Shalise Leesfield
Shalise Leesfield, 14 years old, is a passionate open water scuba diver (PADI) and ocean conservationist. She started her ocean campaign 4 years ago to take a stand against ocean pollution. Shalise has gained a worldwide following and has delivered many inspiring talks to hundreds of thousands of people, online, television, radio, magazines and in person on plastic pollution. Shalise’s project focuses on using her voice to raise awareness about environmental issues. She performed a TEDx talk in Sydney and has spoken at several International Ocean Conferences where she seeks to start a kids movement and inspire children and families from all over the world to live more sustainably to help the ocean. Parley for the Oceans recently selected Shalise to be a part of their Ocean Uprise Team and she represented Australia at their International Youth Leadership Summit in Hawaii. She also speaks at public events and schools to educate them about plastic pollution.