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Angel Fighting the Jaws effect

NO FEAR: Madison Stewart likes nothing better than to dive with sharks, and sees their destruction as a huge threat to the marine environment.
NO FEAR: Madison Stewart likes nothing better than to dive with sharks, and sees their destruction as a huge threat to the marine environment. Contributed

FEAR coupled with human greed is rapidly wiping out the world's shark population - and nowhere more quickly than on the Great Barrier Reef, says Byron Bay teenager Madison Stewart.

The 18 year old, who has dived with thousands of sharks in her short life - sometimes up to 50 at a time - says they are more afraid of humans than we are of them, and their reputation as killers is undeserved.

There is, on average, one death a year from shark attacks in Australia, Madison says - and many more from bee stings.

But because of their fearsome image - the "Jaws effect", she calls it - the public is willing to ignore their extermination.

Combine this reluctance to act with the global billion-dollar shark-fin industry, and we have a situation where these magnificent animals are being decimated and, in Australia, with the Federal Government's blessing.

Madison began diving at

the age of 12 - in Byron Bay, travelling here from her home in Queensland because she could become qualified at a younger age.

Her first dive was at Julian Rocks, where she saw several grey nurse sharks.

But she says she had always been in love with sharks, and had seen them many times before on free dives and while snorkelling on the Great Barrier reef and off the Gold Coast.

The Great Barrier Reef was where her conservationist drive kicked in - being there was "the best thing in the world; it was my Disneyland", she says.

From there her dives became more and more exotic. Aged 14, she accompanied her father, a dive master, to Tiger Beach in the Bahamas and started to shoot film.

Her film work and reputation as a diver and conservationist have led to her being chosen for a mini documentary and advertisement for the search engine Bing.

The ad screened on TV for the first time last weekend, and the film, which traces her adventures underwater as someone who campaigns for sharks, is available on the internet.

Madison's films have been used by conservation groups worldwide and sent to the Australian Parliament to help lobby for the protection of sharks on our Great Barrier Reef.

The activities of the East Coast Inshore Finfish Fisheries come in for her special attention.

The company has permission to remove 600 tonnes of shark a year, she says, 80% of that within the Great Barrier Reef, in a marine park.

There exist other such legal fisheries all over Australia, she says, and this and other similar activities are likely to mean that within a decade the sharks will all be gone. In her first few years of diving there she witnessed how quickly a species was able to disappear.

And because sharks are an "apex predator", to remove them means the entire natural order is disrupted.

Entire reefs are now covered in algae - or infested with stingrays - because the sharks are gone.

"I want the Australian people to speak out and I'm using film to encourage people to choose to reverse the Jaws effect," she said.

"The shark fin trade is a powerful industry, where fins are sent to Asia for soup. But people here can stop eating the body of the shark, which is a by-product of the fin trade."

James Cook University research shows the populations of white-tipped reef sharks and grey nurse sharks are down by 97%, she says. Her hope is that by documenting sharks she will raise awareness of the threat to their survival by changing public opinion.

The ad campaign is the first by Bing and will feature other inspirational Australians.

Bing has previewed Madison's story and how she embodies "doing", launching her mini documentary online at bingisfordoing.com.au.

She intends to keep on "doing" - fearlessly.

"I've never seen a sign of aggression from a shark, and I've been surrounded by 50 of them. They are very predictable. You can tell when they're angry," she said.


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