The Great White shark slides effortlessly up from the blue depths. At first an intangible shape, one twist of the powerful tail transforms the distant fish into a formidable reality. There are few experiences as exciting as diving with a shark in the wild. I have been diving and surfing around sharks most of my life yet actually seeing the shark is a rare experience. Thanks to films like Jaws and Shark Week, our perception is that sharks are vicious man eating beasts out to tear any unsuspecting victim to pieces. The truth is quite the opposite, and most sharks swim away when sensing a human presence. Even the large predatorial species like White sharks and Tiger sharks investigate and generally avoid humans. Of the approximately five hundred of species of sharks, most are less than three feet long, and only a few species are responsible for biting humans.
Death by shark attack is more rare than lightening strikes, yet the perception remains that sharks are dangerous. In fact, many species of shark are becoming endangered.
There are many wonderful fish in the ocean but few as unmistakable as a shark.
Shark population estimates are difficult to come by, and most fisheries do not account for sharks, yet we do know that shark populations are experiencing significant declines from overfishing, to longlining, to shark finning.
Shark finning is the practice of catching a shark, cutting off the fins and discarding the still living shark overboard. This wasteful and cruel practice is driven by the relatively new demand for the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Shark fin, known in China as yu chi or “fish wing,” is used as a textural additive to shark fin soup–a delicacy consumed by wealthy and powerful Chinese since at least the start of the Sung dynasty in 960 A.D. Once valued by a small group of the elite, growing prosperity has created broader demand for this high-status dish to celebrate weddings or business luncheons. A burgeoning demand for shark fin soup in both Asia and the West motivates fishers to kill the sharks only for their fins. Although shark meat brings pennies on the pound and can spoil rapidly on a boat, the dried fin can bring up to $800 a pound, and as much as $100 a bowl.
One study estimates that at the current rate of exploitation some large oceanic shark species may be completely fished out by the year 2050. Over 100 species, including great white sharks, are vulnerable or threatened. Although research indicates that apex predators like sharks are important for maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems, sharks are at best disregarded, or at worst killed for a few fins. With a few slices, a transition from sleek ocean predator to a handful of high-priced body parts is easily achieved.
Although finning is illegal in the United States and approximately thirty other nations, enforcement is difficult and the high process brought by the fins having a serious impact on shark populations. Once the fin has been landed, there is no requirement to document its source or legality, and the fins enter the world market as a commodity as valued and as unethical as elephant ivory.
Finning is an ignoble death for an animal so consummately adapted to the sea. With only a tiny percentage of the animal consumed, this practice is also a terrible waste of food for a growing population reliant on protein from the sea. Despite recent estimates that less than 10 percent remain of some large oceanic shark populations, the hunt for shark fins is escalating, and the practice is unregulated in most parts of the world.
A 2006 study estimated that as many as 73 million sharks per year may be killed for fins alone, and the World Conservation Society estimates that the shark fin trade is growing by five percent a year. The economic boom in Asia is feeding a desire for delicacies and this includes a ravenous demand for a once relatively obscure delicacy. Many shark populations are imperiled and even in our waters where sharks are protected from finning, overfishing has taken its toll on sharks.
Diving the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara as a marine biology student, we would frequently encounter Blue sharks, a delicately built shy shark about six feet long. Yet even these gentle creatures are becoming increasingly rare as they suffer death as bycatch in the tuna longline and swordfish gillnet fishery. Once commonly seen at these islands, I haven’t seen a blue shark in over a decade.
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly and produce few young. A population that has been over fished may take decades to recover, and with continued assaults from habitat encroachment, pollution and fishing many populations may never recover.
Even the iconic Great White Shark has been severely reduced in many regions of the world. The population of the Pacific coast numbers so few that we are urging California and Federal government agencies to protect this population under the endangered species act.
Yet there is hope. Media and advocacy are helping to raise awareness toward protecting sharks and all ocean life. In one case, we teamed with a young student from the town of Tiburon, on a peninsula in San Francisco Bay, to urge that town, named with the Spanish word for shark, to proclaim itself fin-free and in favor of protecting sharks, (which it did.) Another youth has formed a petition to the United Nations to ban shark fining internationally.
After five years of effort, Sea stewards and a host of non profits worked together to pass a shark fin trade ban in California. The law that goes fully into effect this year will make the sale, possession and the trade of shark fin illegal in the state. Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Illinois have followed suit, and five other US states are considering similar legislation including Texas which is experiencing poaching of sharks from Mexico and where we have just introduced legislation to ban the trade of shark fin. Cites and even some countries across the globe are implementing similar legislation to stop the destruction of shark populations.
Many countries are creating Shark Sanctuaries banning not just shark finning but shark fishing altogether. Sharks are not just important to the health of the ecosystem, but are helping the bottom line of poor island economies. This form of eco tourism, from cage diving with Great White Sharks to photographing Tiger Sharks is generating enthusiasm and dollars for local economies, and provides incentive for governments to protect sharks. A study estimated that one reef shark is worth 1.9 million dollars to the economy of the Pacific island nation of Palau. Tourist services, hotels, food and diving all generate local jobs. If harvested, the value would bring a fisherman approximately one hundred dollars in a one time transaction. Clearly, sharks are worth more alive than dead.
Increasingly, our curiosity is transforming from morbid fear to intrigue and excitement, as divers are experiencing sharks first hand through dive tourism. Perhaps seeing sharks first-hand–whether in a cage, an aquarium, or in the open ocean–will motivate more people to protect them. My own experience diving and filming sharks in the wild has convinced me that sharks are beautiful animals, and that all ocean life is important and worth protecting.
Sharks are not just any fish. As apex predators at the top of the food chain, sharks are the regulators of marine ecosystems from coral reefs to eelgrass habitat. Sharks eat the weak, the sick and the slow and over the generations increase the overall health of their prey populations.
The presence of sharks maintains the health and the balance of the oceans, and increasingly, scientific studies are demonstrating that removing sharks has a catastrophic impact on the overall health of the systems. Healthy oceans need healthy shark populations.
The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. Over half the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea. More than 50% of all species on Earth are found under the ocean. The ocean helps sustain human life above the water by providing 20 percent of the animal protein in the human diet. Increasingly, humanity is turning to the oceans for their food. Through a better understanding and protection of sharks, our actions can extend far beyond a local ecosystem, but can impact the health of the oceans and the welfare of the generations who rely on ocean health to survive.
Ways to Get Involved:
- Are any restaurants serving shark fin soup in your town? If so, please share a petition to stop such practice. If such petition does not exist in your town, then make one!
- Swim for Sharks is a shark protection campaign aimed at limiting shark finning and the shark fin trade. The funding will be used to complete a short but effective film to promote shark awareness and save sharks from extinction. The film will help us reach a broad audience through promotion at film festivals, schools and on social media to promote shark and ocean awareness. Contributions will also help support our Texas Shark Fin Ban.