Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cartoonist draws on fame to help plight of sharks

‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ creator meets with experts at NOAA for awareness campaign

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Jim Toomey (left), creator of syndicated comic strip ‘‘Sherman’s Lagoon,” sits on a panel with Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, in Silver Spring on Thursday to discuss shark conservation.
Jim Toomey is a cartoonist, not a scientist. But ‘‘Sherman,” the animated character he created, could play a part in moving shark conservation efforts along on a worldwide scale.

The cartoonist, whose syndicated comic strip ‘‘Sherman’s Lagoon” runs in more than 150 newspapers in the country, met with shark conservation experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters Thursday to help launch a campaign shark lovers hope will fix the bad reputation surrounding the fish and lead to more strict protection measures in international waters.

‘‘Sherman’s Lagoon” is an underwater comic strip featuring Sherman the great white shark and a sea turtle sidekick named Fillmore that get into trouble trying to keep their lagoon free from intruders.

‘‘In marine conservation, the United States is really a leader,” Toomey said on Thursday at the NOAA Fisheries Service building in Silver Spring.

Toomey is wrapping up a two-week series of cartoons starring Sherman to raise awareness on ‘‘finning,” or catching sharks and cutting off their fins for use primarily in soup. Sharks do not survive finning, which is prohibited in American waters.

Sonja Fordham, the director of the shark conservation program at the Ocean Conservancy, said on Thursday that the problem with the bans was that they are not enforced worldwide.

‘‘Most sharks travel outside the United States,” she said.

Sherman will ask readers of the comic strip to send drawings of their favorite sharks and messages urging increased conservation efforts to James Balsiger, the acting assistant administrator of NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Balsiger said after the meeting Thursday that a large response from readers of ‘‘Sherman’s Lagoon” would be useful in bringing more attention to sharks and in preparing NOAA representatives for the next International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting in November.

ICCAT, which was created to stop the overfishing of tuna but has since expanded to include shark conservation, will bring 30 countries, including the United States, together to discuss statistics put together by fisheries and the management of fish species.

NOAA’s main concern is the lack of catch limits in place, Balsiger said.

‘‘In European countries, where catch limits have been adopted, they’re still not enforced,” Balsiger said. ‘‘We intend to be more forceful this time around. ... Rather than just making statements, we’ll try to get partners, and try to get people on board ahead of time.”

On the shelf in the room where Toomey met with shark experts Thursday, a toy great white shark held a plastic purple whale in its mouth. Toomey said fear of sharks begins early in children, fed by films like ‘‘Jaws.”

‘‘What I’m trying to do with the cartoon is prove some of that folklore wrong,” said Toomey, who added that he had a 5-year-old who enjoyed playing with both plush bears and plush sharks.

‘‘Sherman’s Lagoon” was inspired by a trip Toomey took as a child with his father, a pilot in the U.S. Navy. Flying over the Bahamas, Toomey saw a 10-foot-long shark down below, from his vantage point about 500 feet above in his father’s Cessna.

‘‘That was ‘Sherman’s Lagoon,’ essentially,” he said.

Toomey said he wasn’t smart enough to become a marine biologist, ‘‘but I knew how to draw.”

‘‘People are starting to turn the corner. ... Sharks are more popular than people think,” Toomey said.