San Diego woman helps create vast shark sanctuary with help from Hillary Clinton

Sanctuary at Cook Islands largest in the world

SAN DIEGO - A San Diego woman is celebrating a victory of global proportions after a drastic life change sent her in pursuit of her passion.

The waters of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific are home to more than 18 species of sharks. All but a few are endangered, but the danger of extinction may soon be swimming away, thanks to Jessica Cramp, who helped create the largest safe zone for sharks in the world.

"I have a real passion for marine science. I'm a diver and surfer," said Cramp.

Three years ago, Cramp left her job as a biologist for a pharmaceutical company in Sorrento Valley to dive after that passion.

A stint on a research vessel led her to the Cook Islands -- northeast of New Zealand -- where she joined a group promoting a sanctuary for sharks.

Worldwide, an estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.

"For the last decade, sharks have been dramatically decreasing," said Cramp.

For two years, Cramp has been a woman on a tireless mission, educating locals in the Cook Islands and lobbying leaders to ban commercial fishing for sharks.

Last August, her campaign would get a boost from a chance encounter.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the Cook Islands for a conference, walked past Cramp's booth.

"I jumped out and said, 'Hillary, I'm American,' and she stopped in her tracks and turned and grabbed me," said Cramp.

Soon after, Clinton was expressing her support of shark conservation with a shark salute -- a hand placed of the forehand like a shark fin. It was a moment captured in a photo, and the picture was featured in media articles. The Cook Islands' prime minster also took notice.

On December 12, the country's parliament voted to create a sanctuary the size of Mexico around the border of the islands. Combined with other safe zones, it forms the largest contiguous sanctuary in the world.

"We'd love for that to spread to other nations. I feel proud to have fought for the sharks to help them thrive," said Cramp.

Cramp will head to San Diego in a few weeks to give some talks on her efforts. She hopes to live in San Diego part-time and become an ambassador for shark conservation.

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