We have all seen, or at least heard of, the famous thriller/horror film Jaws. It induced nightmares and possibly a hatred of sharks into the general public, so that today people still seem to think that these sleek predators are terrifying, prolific man-eaters that Jaws portrays them to be. I think it is high time people understood the truth. Recently we have reached a critical point in history when the rate at which we are killing sharks will result in their extinction, that is, if we do not stop fearing them and start protecting them.
Consider this: across the world, between 1999 and 2009, 5 people died from shark attacks per year on average. These occur because sharks simply mistake humans for seals or other prey items because in fact, many people dive regularly with sharks which often swim away because they are afraid. Sadly, they have a good reason to be.
Do you know how many sharks were killed by humans between 1999 and 2009?
Shockingly this may even be a little conservative. For every human killed, nearly 161 million sharks were killed. This equates to roughly 11,417 sharks killed every hour and 3 sharks being killed every second. The figure below brings this fact into a more shocking visual perspective…
There are now 110 ‘Threatened’ shark species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List and 95 more are ‘Near Threatened’. To make matters worse, sharks grow slowly, mature relatively late and thus produce few offspring – often young sharks make up the majority of the catch.
Why are so many sharks being killed?
Finning. That’s why. You can go to a Hong Kong restaurant, one of the world’s largest consumers of this delicacy, and buy a bowl of shark fin soup for about $100 USD. Hong Kong in fact imports 58% of all shark fin trade which is even greater than the whole of China (which accounts for 36%). Data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (2008) suggests that the major three catchers of sharks are Indonesia (107 kilotons), India (81 kilotons) and Spain (55 kiliotons).
So to protect sharks it seems we need a two-pronged solution. We need to cut off the demand for shark fins in Hong Kong and China whilst concentrating on reducing the sharks that are caught in Indonesia, India and Spain.
Many fear that banning finning will destroy local communities and break economies. However, each whale shark earns the Australian economy $250, 000 USD through ecotourism, whilst Indian fishermen get $600-3,000 USD per catch. In developing countries, one’s survival may depend on daily catches, it is a very sensible issue to be addressed and conservation organisations are actively trying to find a way around this problem. Of course, income is relative dependent on the country’s economy, but most of this money will go to the middle man at the fish market.
Solutions have been imagined and implemented in several countries to fight against this destructive practice. Ecotourism, managed sustainably with proper safeguards is one of them – it provides a positive cycle of education, empowerment, conservation and profits local economies. We can also reduce the by-catch of sharks in fisheries, another major source of shark deaths, by fishing in ways that will not harm them: indigenous people have managed their fisheries sustainably for hundreds of years, using traditional pole-and-line catching techniques.
However, let us not lose sight of the sheer natural beauty of sharks, incredible survivors that remained unchanged for over 34 million years. Dominating the marine ecosystem by hunting the sick, disabled and wounded organisms, they prevent their genes persisting within the populations, strongly influencing the natural selection and long term, evolution of a huge array of marine species. So let us be humble: we are an infant species compared to sharks, yet are now driving them to extinction, something even Mother Nature has failed to do in the past.
Thankfully, policy-makers around the world are starting to take note. In 2011 President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into action which closed previous loopholes in anti-finning legislation. The Maldives also took a leading stand in this battle in 2010 by banning all shark finning in its territorial waters and all imports and exports of shark fins. In fact, shark conservation zones are slowly beginning to spring up all around the world. Even more surprisingly, shark-attack survivors have been campaigning to save sharks too.
There is now no excuse not to help. We all need to take a stand for sharks.