Before his death four years ago, author of the book and blockbuster 70s film, Jaws, and environmental campaigner, Peter Benchley, made one of many attempts to redress the impact his creation had had on our understanding of sharks and the need to conserve marine eco-systems. Speaking as a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense, he said: 'The shark in an updated [version of] Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.'
And indeed, oppressed they are. Today, according to the Shark Specialist Group, a group of 160 experts from 90 countries, overfishing - largely to meet demand for shark fin soup in China - has caused many shark populations to decline steeply. More than 25 per cent of all pelagic (open water) sharks, 35 per cent of epipelagic (those that live closer to the surface) and over half of large oceanic pelagic sharks, are classified as threatened in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Unlike some other fisheries, the slow growth, late maturity, and small number of young, make sharks particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and numbers are very slow to recover once depleted.
What makes this decline in shark populations even more startling is the barbaric way in which it has occurred. Resulting in the deaths of approximately 100 million sharks each year, shark finning is the practice of cutting off the shark’s fins and throwing the still living shark back into the sea to die. Practiced worldwide, shark finning is considered inhumane and wasteful, and is responsible, according to NGO WildAid, for the 90 per cent decline in shark populations over the last 50 years.
There is an easy financial logic for shark fishermen. Prices for shark meat in European markets ranges from 1 to 7 euros per kilo, while processed fins can fetch anything from 90 to 300 euros per kilo in Hong Kong. Shark fins are now among the world’s most valuable fisheries products.
Compared to shark meat which can be difficult to store and maintain in good condition, fins are easy to air-dry or freeze for storage onboard fishing vessels, and take up very little space. And, although some fisheries target sharks solely for their fins, finning also happens when vessels take large numbers of sharks as ‘bycatch’, usually via long lining – a fishing method involving multi-hook lines up to 100 miles long, used to catch tuna and swordfish.
When long line fishermen cannot easily access markets for shark meat by-catch at landing sites, the fin is more than ample compensation for the inconvenience of missing their target catch. Indeed, independent reports suggest long line fishermen sometimes end up with more shark by-catch than the bony fish they are supposed to be catching.
Ocean advocacy group Oceana estimates that Hong Kong alone imports 10 million kilos of shark fin each year from as many as 87 countries, with Spain, Singapore and Taiwan the biggest suppliers.
The tasteless impact of China’s cultural aspiration
So how did a simple regional dish, place such an unsustainable demand on global shark populations? After a loose ban during the Mao era, where it was considered a bourgeois delicacy, over the last 20 years shark fin soup has made a come back. Although the fin is almost tasteless and the soup ends up being flavoured with chicken stock, today it is seen as an absolute must at important functions, such as weddings and state functions. At restaurants, shark fin soup can easily cost upwards of $100 per bowl, and is being consumed in increasing quantities.
Steve Trent, President of WildAid told The Ecologist: 'The pace and depth of economic change in China over the last 25 years has been profound. In the next 10 years there will be up to 250 million relatively middle class urban-living people with disposable income in a highly aspirational culture, where the need and social benefits of showing off wealth are high. This will mean a potentially higher demand for shark fin soup because of the status it confers on both the giver and receiver.'
The impact of this continued consumption, he adds, will potentially, be catastrophic: 'Seen through the lens of economic security, sharks need better protection because they play a key role in maintaining the health of our marine ecosystems and with this, other commercially valuable fisheries. By removing sharks it is clear that other species could be disrupted, possibly with serious negative consequences.'
The Lensfest Ocean Program, in a 2010 study of how large sharks shape marine communities, says that the net result of decline in shark populations are cascading effects through food webs. For example the elimination of larger sharks can cause meso-predators, one step down the food chain, such as smaller shark species and rays, to increase in number, and in some instances, as a 2007 study by Dalhousie University shows, this can result in the consumption of greater numbers of smaller fish, crustaceans and shellfish, including some commercially important species.
The Dalhousie study showed that as shark numbers plummeted to less than five per cent of original populations in US east coast seas, their natural prey, including the Cownose ray increased considerably. Researchers already knew from earlier studies in the 1980’s, that bay scallops on the North Carolina coast survived the Cownose ray predation during their summer migration, but found that by 2004, the rays had completely devastated the scallop population and ended the region’s century-old bay scallop industry.
Moreover, as highly migratory species with vast roaming ranges, the decimation of sharks in one area may also have consequences for many different eco-systems.
Loopholes, leniency, and what the eye doesn’t see
Shark finning is prohibited by more than 20 shark fishing countries and many Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), using a variety of enforcement strategies. The most common enforcement method is to limit the ratio of fin to carcass weight and require that sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached to their bodies; thus providing vital information about species populations and their decline.
A recent report, by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) and the European Elasmobranch Association (EEA) recommends this method which is being mandated for an increasing number of fisheries, particularly in Central and North America, and creating momentum for global change. These changes have been reflected in recent statements by the United Nations General Assembly, the Fish Stocks Agreement Review Conference in 2010 and in RFMO expert discussions.
However, there are still significant territories whose regulations and or enforcement techniques fall short. It is true that the European Parliament has too, this month, called for a proposal to close loopholes in existing shark finning regulations, which the IUCN, SSG and EEA report says make it possible for EU fishermen to fin an estimated two out of every three sharks without detection or punishment, but that is unlikely to come into force for some time.
And, even when it does, there is no guarantee that it will be enforced. The bottom line is that while there is no inherent conflict between having sustainable industry and environmental controls, the myopic tendency towards short term profits remains strong.
The experience of Egypt, where it’s not just illegal to fin sharks, but to actually catch and sell them, is informative. In 2010 a diving operator alerted the Egyptian navy to a fishing boat from neighbouring Yemen which, when apprehended, was found to be carrying hundreds of slaughtered Tiger Sharks, Oceanic White Tips, and Hammerheads.
Nevertheless, with sizeable profits to be made, there is no shortage of others willing to take the place of the arrested Yemeni fishermen. The same pattern appears in other low income countries, where fishermen are often pressurised by black market operators into finning sharks as fast as possible to increase their measly pay – sometimes less than 1 per cent of the retail value of the fin.
The power of countries yet to impose a ban on finning should not be underestimated either. In March 2010, China, Japan and Russia helped defeat a proposal at a U.N wildlife trade meeting calling for increased transparency in the shark trade, expressing concern that the measure would hurt poor nations and could be handled by regional bodies instead. The same regional boards which some campaigners say answer to their commercial directors, not the executive branch of their governments, or the UN.
In the meantime, there are those such as award winning Costa Rican marine biologist-turned-shark activist, Randall Arauz, who think we need a more fundamental shift of tack. 'Instead of basing reform on quota's based on individual species we need to shift the framework to ecosystem management which also takes into account each species natural predator, and prey,' he says. As highly migratory species, this kind of eco-system management will need full international co-operation and better engagement with the major consuming markets, especially China.
To do that, Steve Trent says we need to update our somewhat morally righteous view of China: 'Of course we should give constructive and forceful criticism but also invite them to take the lead; ultimately, it could be the Chinese who come to realise and demonstrate that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.'
Can the public ever love the shark?
To date WildAid have successfully enlisted a number of Chinese celebrities, including basketball player and China’s most well known sportsman, Yao Ming, and film star Jackie Chan, in promoting awareness via mainstream media including on state TV.
The impact of the methyl mercury found in all shark products and the irreversible, neurological damage it can have, as well as the use of industrial grade hydrogen peroxide to process shark fins, are also becoming better known.
But no matter how compelling the evidence about finning, or the questionable nutritional value of shark fin soup, the question remains whether sharks can mobilise opinion in the same way more appealing animals such as the panda can?
Without better understanding, it’s all too easy to think of sharks in the same way we do other species such as blue fin tuna, so loved by sushi eaters. No doubt if the soup was made from dolphin dorsal fin or panda ears, the campaigners’ success would be a fait accompli.
Indeed, even when the Global Shark Attack File, which reports the significance of shark/human interactions, shows we are more likely to be killed by an electric toaster than a shark; the ‘witch hunt’ hysteria surrounding the recent shark attack-related death of a German tourist in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is telling. We are scared of sharks and that makes it easier to justify both their indiscriminate slaughter, and our errant ability to ignore the consequences of our actions.
Antonia Quirke, author of the British Film Institutes’ book ‘JAWS’ believes that the impact of Stephen Spielberg’s film on our collective psyche cannot be underestimated: 'Jaws provided us with an unforgettable series of images of the jaws of a shark: the clearest signifier of death there is. We can be bitten by a spider, trampled by an elephant, stung by a jellyfish, mauled by a bear, gored by a bull, constricted by a python but we are EATEN by a shark. The sharks' teeth represent (literally) the physical gates to the next world. We seek to punish sharks because they are the very incarnation of our fears.'
While hundreds of millions of sharks were killed in the last two years, only around 80 shark attacks on humans were reported - with only 3 deaths worldwide. Dr Erich Ritter, who runs a shark school for divers, at the Red Sea Diving Safari in Egypt, says: 'No other animal is connected to so much erroneous information and portrayed in such a wrongful manner as the shark. Sharks are not dangerous; it’s the situations which humans either knowingly or unknowingly create, or [which] are triggered by a third party. The wrongful attitude towards these animals among the general public has to change. But it’s not human nature to protect what they fear, and it is this fear which has to be eliminated. The true animal has to be shown and when people are aware, they will realise that these animals have nothing in common with the image portrayed in the media and movies.'
Thankfully, while efforts to better educate the public about sharks are still piecemeal, what we already know is very revealing. Contrary to received wisdom, sharks have a similar brain to body mass ratio as mammals, and are more social than we care to admit, possessing not just curiosity but powerful problem solving skills.
The ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research have observed sharks near Smitswinkle Bay, South Africa working together to move a partially beached dead whale to deeper waters to feed, as well as Porbeagle sharks engaged in playful activities and repeatedly chasing an individual shark trailing a piece of kelp behind it.
And revealing their intrinsic beauty remains the mission of Belgian photographer and conservationist, Jean-Marie Ghislain: 'I never forget that we have to pay respect and that we are in their territory but once you understand their psychology and adopt the right behavour, you can safely share their waters. Many of the sharks I have swum with were so beautiful and playful I almost forgot I was with sharks.'
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