As a whole, society can help to shift the negative perception of sharks. Sharks have faced years of backlash, resulting in people fearing and disliking these animals without ever really understanding them. However, sharks are crucial to the world we live in. They keep ecosystems in balance, maintain healthy and strong oceans, and ensure we have fish to eat. Without sharks, the environment, the economy and humankind would be impacted on a global scale. If society overall started to understand that, people would be more motivated to protect them.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefanie Brendl, founder and Executive Director of Shark Allies. After years of experience running a shark diving business in Hawaii, Stefanie realized that she had to do something to protect them. She switched gears to focus on shark conservation, dedicating her life to the protection and conservation of sharks. In recent years, Stefanie’s political work has put her on the forefront of shark conservation. She was a driving force behind the first shark fin trade ban in the Nation in Hawaii in 2010, which has since become model legislation for 12 other U.S. states, 3 territories and many Pacific Island Nations. She is also the Executive Producer and lead of the documentary Extinction Soup.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started scuba diving at 22 years old, and I’ve always had a love for the ocean and sharks. I ran a shark diving operation in Hawaii for several years, photographing and diving with sharks of all shapes and sizes. Through that work, I came to realize that I had to do something to protect them, so I switched gears to focus on shark conservation.
I had heard about shark finning during my travels throughout Micronesia and Indonesia in the ’90s. In Palau, we actually saw first-hand a long line fishing vessel that had pulled into the harbor with dried fins hanging off the railings. This hit me particularly hard because this is a place that is famous for shark diving and that was putting great efforts into protecting their sharks. It came as such a shock to me and it inspired me to learn all I could in the years that followed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the most interesting parts about working with sharks is the broad range of people I have had the chance to meet and work with — anyone from well-known Hollywood stars to heads of State.
A fun fact is that the Florida shark fin campaign actually started with a show hosted by Discovery’s Shark Week. I was chosen to take Mark Cuban (of Shark Tank) diving with sharks in Hawaii while pitching the work of Shark Allies. In a sense, that spectacle combined all the elements of my work. Diving, working with media and personalities and advocating for shark conservation. The judges of Shark Tank (called “the sharks”) were each sent on a shark adventure with a different conservation group. Mark Cuban was delegated to us. Afterward, he personally pitched Shark Allies as a worthy cause to be funded by the show. Our topic was very serious — the devastating trade of shark fins. The shock factor of our campaign was quite jarring to the judges and despite Mark’s great efforts in pitching, our cause did not win. However, the challenge was posed for us to move forward with the Florida campaign. I can say, “Mark Cuban made me do it.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
With the shark diving business, the funniest mistake right off the bat was the first cage we built. We actually thought it would be a great idea to make it super lightweight, using PVC piping glued together in a cube-like structure. When we dropped it in the water, the first swell that pushed against it made it burst like someone had kicked a Lego set across the floor.
In my advocacy work, the funniest moment was probably my first legislative hearing. I had no idea what the protocol was for meeting Senators and officials. Should you curtsy and kiss the ring? Make eye contact or call them Mr. Senator or your excellency? Would you only speak when spoken to? It’s a good thing I was shell-shocked and simply delivered my message. The Senator later told me that I looked like a deer caught in headlights, but he could tell that I had something important to say. Luckily, he could see my intentions and asked his staff to recruit me to help with the campaign.
It did show me that sometimes it pays to just show up and wing it. If you aim for perfection, all of the work will forever seem overwhelming and outside the comfort zone.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The goal of Shark Allies is to make it possible for every person to become a warrior for sharks and get involved with shark conservation. Many people think that they can’t get involved because they aren’t a marine biologist or don’t live near the ocean, but it can be as easy as calling your legislatures or making the commitment to not purchase shark products.
Shark Allies makes it easy to be a shark activist by providing real-time updates and call to actions. We have an entire page that encourages people to Take Action Now with quick and easy action items that make a difference for sharks.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
The impact has mostly been to sharks, and it’s hard to gauge that impact on individuals. On the human side of the issue, every person that has become involved in one of our legislative campaigns says that the experience changed their lives. To take part in the civic process and fight for a cause that ultimately succeeded has created many new advocates that are now involved in other campaigns.
One experience that stays with me from my shark diving business shows the essence of how sharks can affect people and connect them to the ocean. A friend that had recently moved from Idaho to Oahu explained that her biggest phobia in life was sharks. She could not imagine how she could enjoy swimming and snorkeling in the ocean, which was a dilemma since she now lived on an island. I challenged her to give me one day to change her mind. I took her out on our boat, threw her in the shark cage, and the world changed for her in moments. Forty years of fear dissipated as she was able to meet sharks in their world. I didn’t need to do much. I just let her sit, feeling protected by the safety of the cage, and observe. As an educated, logical person, she sorted it out herself. I then entered the water and swam with the sharks. Her fear turned into curiosity and by the end of the afternoon, she asked to meet the sharks face-to-face. No cage, no fear. Phobia GONE! After that day, she never looked at the ocean in the same way.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
My main work over the last decade has focused on legislation around the shark fin trade. Over the last 30 years, some shark populations have declined by more than 90% and 1/3 of all shark species are threatened with extinction. This is primarily due to the process of finning for shark fin soup, a product that has no nutritional value and effectively only serves one purpose: to represent wealth and status.
1. On a community-level, individuals can call or write letters to their legislatures, encouraging them to sign in support of shark fin bans. We have an entire section on our website with things people can do to help the cause, from emailing your legislatures to signing in support of shark fin legislation.
2. As a whole, society can help to shift the negative perception of sharks. Sharks have faced years of backlash, resulting in people fearing and disliking these animals without ever really understanding them. However, sharks are crucial to the world we live in. They keep ecosystems in balance, maintain healthy and strong oceans, and ensure we have fish to eat. Without sharks, the environment, the economy and humankind would be impacted on a global scale. If society overall started to understand that, people would be more motivated to protect them.
3. Politicians have the power to make a change. Signing in support of shark fin legislation, or even introducing a new bill, can be the catalyst to stop the shark fin trade on a global scale.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe Leadership has two parts — one facing forward and one reaching back. As a leader, you have to be willing and capable to take decisive steps and make decisions that others can follow. You are the spearhead that determines the direction, whether that is through, over or around a challenge. You must be more committed than anyone else so that the people behind you never have any doubt that you will lead, even when the steps are unknown or unsure. The leader paves the trail. A leader must see the value in the people they lead, build their strength, give them energy and inspire them to come along. Most of all, an effective leader knows when to look forward, when to look back and when to step out of the way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “Be careful who you take advice from.” — Just because someone makes more money, has a bigger megaphone or says they are an expert doesn’t mean you can blindly follow their advice. The examples for this are too numerous. So many times I have had strong individuals take an interest in my life or career and tell me, “you know what you oughta do?!” What followed would either derail my path or make me insecure. Most of the time, I would have to course-correct later and go with what my own instincts told me in the first place.
- “You are just as qualified. Everyone else is winging it just like you are.” — I never had any doubt about what I wanted in life, but I spent too many years worrying that I am not qualified, too young, too uneducated, not traveling in the right crowds, etc. I pursued it anyway, but always feeling like an imposter that was getting away with something is a waste of energy.
- “Nothing is as important as you think in the moment.” — I’ve spent too much energy on things that weren’t important a week or a month later, had too many arguments over stupid issues, and sent too many emails that caused more trouble or work than they were worth it. It’s hard to know whether one can avoid that journey. In a way, the hassle I created for myself might have helped sharpen my debating and writing skills. But looking back, I think there were so many instances where I should have just let it go.
- “Everyone has a story and a reason for how they act.” — This is a massive revelation I have only learned in recent years. It has made me a lot more tolerant and empathetic towards people that oppose my work, my cause or my convictions. With the shark advocacy work, I found myself frequently working with people that are on the other side of the political spectrum from me — even people that hated me and were trying to secretly work against me. I suddenly started to see the weakness, the pettiness or the anger as a product of what that person must have experienced growing up, or who they listen to on a daily basis. It became less personal that way. I understood that people weren’t necessarily fighting me as a person, but that they were hanging on to what they knew. Most people are not blatantly trying to be evil or ignorant. They can act that way because they are kids that grew up at some point and now wearing a suit, or are defending their livelihood that someone like me might be attacking, and that I was really the representation of other fears and insecurities in their lives.
- “Think, look and act outside the box.” — Thinking outside the box was never a problem for me, but I didn’t realize the value in also changing my vision and my actions to take place outside my bubble. What I mean by that is that sometimes we are so sure about what we want, who we want to be with or where we want to work, and mistake that as being focused. I kept evolving more and more into the person I thought I should be and being encouraged by the type of friends I picked that had those same expectations. When life imploded and became chaotic due to a dramatic incident, I completely derailed and spun out of control. I became so unfocused that I was able to try things that were out of my nature. I had the sense that I really didn’t know who I was until I covered some ground in a territory that was foreign to me. I gave people a chance that I would have written off as not like-minded enough. I made new friends, and I discovered things I was good at that were unexpected. Sometimes when you do the opposite of what is expected or easy, you experience the biggest growth.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Level the importance of Mother Nature vs the Economy. These days, nothing seems more important than the economy as if it were an entity in itself. Anything that doesn’t obviously contribute to power, money and jobs is seen as less important. We wouldn’t struggle with capitalism, invasions and wars, climate change, and the destruction of our planet if people stopped having this tunnel vision to get more, have more, be more than the people in another race, country or religion. Human beings, animals, plants and the ocean must be valued higher, at all times, than this monster we call “the economy”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like many quotes and get inspiration from them, but one gave me an “Ahaa” moment when I first heard it years ago. I remember it every time I get intimidated or think I can’t do something.
It comes in many versions. Bruce Lee said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” Or the John Wayne version, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyways.”
This quote unlocks me when I feel paralyzed to make a decision or have doubt about moving forward in all aspects of my life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
That is the toughest question. Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Jim Carrey, Eddie Izzard — all for the same reason — I am intrigued by their big personalities, how they have walked their own path, have changed direction whenever they needed or felt like it, and succeeded in a big way. I would immensely enjoy a conversation with them and would probably ask how they would go about pushing a cause, like saving sharks, to a new level.
Also, I would love to meet the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. I think she is one of the best world leaders and she seems like an amazing human being.
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