Welcome to our "Ocean Passion Series" where we are interviewing regular people doing extraordinary actions for the ocean. We at Pelagic Love want to show you that anybody can be what they imagine just by putting action to their thoughts. This week our guest Thomas Ponce, a 16 year old fighting desperately for sharks.
Good day Thomas we are so excited to have a lobbyist on our blog today that is showing people how to protect sharks legally! So please tell us about yourself and where you are in the world ?My name is Thomas Ponce, I am 16 years old and from Casselberry Fl. I am the Founder and President of Lobby For Animals, a 501c(3) nonprofit organization, as well as the Coordinator for Fin Free FL and a grant advisor with The Pollination Project on their Environmental and Animal Rights Boards. I am vegan, an advocate, lobbyist, and someone who believes in the inter-connectivity of human, Earth and animal rights as well as the power we all have to make the world we share a better place.
Impressive that at 16 years old you are involved in such serious levels of leaderships for not only your own organization but others too. Tell us how long have you known your passion for the ocean and can you remember what brought it to the surface?
My passion for the ocean and its inhabitants started when I was very young but evolved and grew over time. What started as a fascination and desire to learn more about the different life forms such as those found in the Marianas Trench, to those found living in my own backyard ocean, soon grew to a love, appreciation and respect for its magnificence and the crucial role that it plays in the ecosystem. I think if I had to try and pinpoint what the catalyst might have been that started me on this path, I would say that there were many; from the realization of the lives that are taken to supply us with food, clothing, entertainment, etc. to the senseless culling driven by monetary gain. Those connections to the truth changed my life forever.
If I think back though to a precise moment in time, there are three that stand out for me with regard to the ocean, and the first I’d have to say was a book I picked out one day at the library, when I was about three, called Turtle, Turtle Watch Out! By April Pulley Sayre. I remember asking my Mom to read it to me over and over again. My Mom eventually had to buy it because I loved it so much. To this day it sits on my bookshelf and I have shared the premise of its message with many. The story follows a sea turtle through its life’s journey from egg to maturity when she returns to the same beach she was hatched at to lay her own eggs. The story shared the obstacles and dangers the turtle faced along the way from predators to human impact. Throughout the story when a danger was introduced it also gave way to ideas on how we as human beings could help. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of being proactive. I was very young but it made an impression with me; so much so that I remember asking to go and help clean up the beach and volunteer to guard the turtle nests. I did have the chance later in life to witness a loggerhead turtle laying her eggs, during a walk I did with Sea Turtle Preservation Society it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. This interest in the sea led me to what I think was the next impactful event that reinforced my passion for the ocean and sharks in particular.
I had always had a love for sharks and felt a sort of kinship with them. You see sharks are greatly misunderstood, and that is something I could personally relate to. The Hollywood depiction of sharks is just that, it’s the stuff movies are made of, it is not reality. The importance and beauty of sharks is missed by most, and it is this misconception that reinforces people’s fears. They are the classic example of why you should never judge a book by its cover.
What truly sealed my conviction though was on my birthday I had an encounter with a fisherman in Venice Beach, Florida who pulled a Bonethead shark pup up on his line at the pier. When I saw that shark flailing around I knew I could not allow it to be killed. I spoke with the fisherman, well pleaded really, for quite some time. I spoke about the importance of sharks and overall life itself. I started to draw a crowd of onlookers who listened to my plea and finally I convinced him to allow me to set the shark free. When I looked in that shark's eyes as I released her, I knew I would fight for sharks for as long as they needed protection.
While I was aware how important sharks were to the ecosystem and did not share the public view of them, I did not know about the horrors of finning until I watched the documentary Sharkwater. Listening to Rob Stewart and learning from him about what sharks were up against ignited a fire in me. I had been a vegetarian from the age of four and a vegan from around nine, so my foundation of fighting injustice was strong. I had done my fair share of protests by this time, as well as presentations at school on animal rights and environmental related issues, but that documentary moved me to act on behalf of the sharks in a way that I had not acted on before, through legislation.
Shortly after, I attended the FARM animal rights conference and met three representatives from Fin Free, Kevin, Tracy and their very lovable dog Donaghy. I told them my story of the day I saved a shark and we wound up talking for hours. They believed in me and my desire to help and recommended me for the position of Coordinator and I set out to create a Fin Free FL chapter. It made perfect sense to me; it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I had been thinking for a while how the laws needed to change pertaining to animal rights and the environment for things to truly be changed in our world. I learned as much as I could about lobbying from online classes to talks with attorneys and lobbyists and then I created my organization Lobby For Animals so that I could teach others. Once I had the knowledge, one of the first pieces of legislation I began working on was a shark fin ban in Florida. While my efforts were not successful my first round of action, I am proud that the bill was sponsored and went all the way to committee. I spoke to so many legislators and constituents about the bill and it helped to bring the issue to the minds of my legislators as well as the community, and there’s always another session to try again.
Your story is so impactful! From sea turtles to sharks to creating a path to out right ban shark fins in Florida. We definitely know you're passionate about the sharks, so please tell us what action do you do to give back or help the ocean?
My actions mainly consist of education, outreach and lobbying. I am currently working on the campaign supporting the Shark Fin Sales/Trade Elimination Acts of 2017. Through Lobby For Animals I try and give people the tools necessary to effectively lobby their legislators. I have sample constituent and organizational letters that people can utilize when contacting their Representatives, as well as a ton of other resources. I try to make it as easy as possible to get involved and be proactive in the legislative process. The way I see it, the more voices we have speaking up for sharks, animal rights, our environment and all those we share this world with, the better.
We have to mention that you are currently 16 years old because you have accomplished so much at a young age. Ok so how has your passion for the ocean changed your thinking and your young life?
My passions in general have made me the person I am at my core. My desire to bring about positive change is a big part of what drives me. When I see an injustice being done I start to think about ways to tackle it and work towards changing it. A lot of people shy away from reality. If it is too painful to see they tend to ignore it or fall back on the excuse of “well this is how it’s always been” or “I am just one person” or “I am just a kid” instead of taking the problem head on and saying “what can I do to help?”
“What can I change about myself or the choices I make, that could have an impact on this issue?” There is a lot of information out there to be learned you just have to make the commitment to learn about the world around you and then make a plan and act on it. I have met so many amazing supportive people in my life from those committed to protecting the oceans to those in the animal rights and vegan community and if we all work together I know we can generate a force to be reckoned with and work towards creating a better world for the generations to come.
We agree with you Thomas about combining forces to create a better world! With that in mind how has your passion for the ocean brought out strength or confidence that would have been a fear otherwise?
I think I have always been a strong person. I have always stuck to my belief system, even when it didn’t exactly make me the most popular kid in school. For me, doing what is right has never been something I had to battle with, it is just in my mind what needs to be done. As far as fear, and the strength I draw from my advocacy, sure the first time I stood in front of a crowd and spoke I was nervous and scared, to be honest I still get nervous and scared, but once I start talking something takes over. I focus on the message and the fact that what I am trying to achieve by getting my message out is not about me, it’s bigger than that, it’s about standing up for what is right and my fears dissipate. Learning about the cruelty and injustice that exists in the world is something I do not let affect me negatively, I choose to use it as motivation to keep pushing forward and keep trying. Every time I speak to someone whether it is about sharks, being vegan, lobbying, etc. and I see that something I said resonated with them it fuels me.
Using the wrongs as motivation to keep pushing forward is outstanding action Thomas! So we have heard about all the incredible organizations you have started and are affiliated with now tell us what ocean organization is your favorite and why?
There are so any organizations working and doing such amazing things for our oceans and on so many different levels and facets that I could not possibly choose one, nor could I list them all. I of course have Sea Shepherd and the work that they do on my list. Their work truly opened the world’s eyes to a lot of the horrors that take place around the world and the businesses that drive them. I am also inspired by the work of Mr. Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project and Mr. Louis Psihoyos , Ocean Preservation Society, The Cove and Racing Extinction were both such impactful documentaries/movements and have spurred teams of advocates for the ocean all across the world. Wild Aid and Shark Savers campaign has also achieved tremendous gains in China with reducing the consumption of fins. No ocean list could be complete though without including Ms. Sylvia Earle, whose work needs no explanation. Then there are less talked about yet extremely strong advocates like Skyler Thomas and Ricardo LaCombe who have created wonderful, educational documentaries on shark conservation, as well as smaller organizations that are doing tremendous work like Fin Fighters UK, who amongst other actions are actively going into fish markets and testing the DNA of the fins to find out if any laws have been broken and then acting on their findings. There are also many online groups that to me help to educate so many as they are filled with resources to learn more like White Shark Advocacy and Fish Feel . It truly is a team effort, and while each uses different tactics and plays different roles they all contribute towards a common goal.
Oh you have shared a brilliant list of passionate people and organizations so we can see why it would be hard for you to just pick one. Moving on tell us in your own words what would you like people to know that was a great lesson you have learned because of your passion?
You are never too old, too young or any other label you place upon yourself to stand up for what is right. Margaret Mead said it best when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead definitely did say it best! If we all put some focused efforts into an injustice we can change the world.
We want to thank you Thomas for all that you have accomplished at such a young age. What you have shared is one impressive path of action you have created and we're sure will continue to create! Please keep us all up to date on what you're doing and we would love to have you back to share.
Our next guest on the Ocean Passion Series will be a lovely lady from Florida named Staci-lee Sherwood. Staci-lee is an incredible advocate against ocean pollution and is a dedicated volunteer for sea turtle nesting.
Please leave a comment below if you would like to ask Thomas any questions so he can help you on your journey to lobby for the ocean.