WAYNE CREED: Give Sharks a Break!

In encounters with sharks, humans usually come out on top. (Sunshine Coast Daily photo)

In encounters with sharks, humans usually come out on top. (Sunshine Coast Daily photo)


August 25, 2014

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2014 ended the same as always, with the statement: “Sharks have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.” Only 10 people died from shark attacks last year, yet on average, 73 million sharks are killed by people each year (that works out to more than 8000 sharks per hour).

Estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicate that 90 percent of large sharks have been severely diminished (93-99 percent of all large sharks off the east coast of North America have been destroyed (tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks.) On the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species, 50 shark species are listed as being at high risk of extinction (either critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable) and 63 additional endangered shark species are approaching threatened status. Another 199 species of sharks are considered “data deficient”; they may be endangered, but there is insufficient data to determine their status.

When Europeans first came to the New World, they had no word for shark. Spaniards used the Carib Indians’ term “tiburon,” while English transformed the Mayan word “xoc” to shark. No matter which name was chosen, these animals were much larger and more numerous than what we currently see. According to NOAA shark biologist Jose Castro, who just released a paper on shark history, “Historical Knowledge of Sharks: Ancient Lore, Earliest Attacks.” He writes, “Imagine what it was like back in the 1500s. The number of sharks in those waters can only be imagined, but it must have been tremendous.”

These great predators have ruled the seas for 450 million years, and it is not until the viral spread of humans that they have become threatened. Industrial exploitation of sharks in North America began in 1917, with the incorporation of the Ocean Leather Co. Due to its ability to produce unusually high quality leather the company set out processing a thousand sharks a day. It only took a few decades before many shark populations reached overfished status.

Sharks are particularly sensitive to overfishing due to their tendency to take many years to mature and have relatively few young. Modern day industrial overfishing is mainly due to Hong Kong’s unsustainable appetite for shark fin soup, which sells for over $100 a bowl. Shark finning goes entirely against the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks; however, these are not legal requirements but recommendations which cannot be enforced. There are no national or international laws or treaties that exist to prohibit the sale of shark fins. Shark finning is the practice of catching a live shark, slicing off its fins with a hot knife blade and then dumping the still-living shark back in the ocean, where it drowns or bleeds to death.


Hong Kong is certainly the most disgusting driver of the shark fin market, handling close to 80 percent of the world trade. The major suppliers, however, are the same usual suspects: Europe (Spain is by far the largest supplier; Britain, France, Portugal, and Italy are competitive), Norway, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Japan, Mexico, Yemen, and United Arab Emirates — and oh yes, the United States (if you know where to go, shark fin soup can be obtained in San Francisco and New York). In all, over 100 countries are involved in shark finning.

According to Sonja Fordham, deputy chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and policy director for the Shark Alliance, “Despite mounting threats, sharks remain virtually unprotected on the high seas. The vulnerability and lengthy migrations of most open ocean sharks mean they need coordinated, international conservation plans. Our report documents serious overfishing of these species, in national and international waters, and demonstrates a clear need for immediate action on a global scale.”

Of course, shark fisheries are not the only ones in danger — high tech, industrial fishing fleets and years of overfishing have done their damage. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 80 percent of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, at, or beyond their capacity – with more than 50 percent of fish stocks considered fully exploited. Many scientists believe commercial fisheries will collapse worldwide by 2048, although many regional fisheries have already collapsed.

Fish (including sharks) cannot compete with these excessive demands – and fishermen are going wherever they can, catching smaller species and undersized, immature/juvenile fish. This puts pressure on species traditionally considered non-commercially viable – such as sharks. Of course, a good bit of this fishing occurs illegally (Greenpeace estimates $9 billion of illegal fishing occurs yearly). High-tech long-lines and trawls, gill nets and drift nets have also resulted in 43 million tons of bycatch, which is sometimes kept, many times discarded.

The picture is very bleak, but there are some bright spots. In 2009, news was released that the president of Palau intended on creating a shark sanctuary that would forbid any form of commercial fishing of sharks. This step later led to the formation of other shark sanctuaries around the world, particularly in the Maldives, Honduras, Bahamas, and Tokelau. In the case of Palau, it has banned shark fishing within its Exclusive Economic Zone, and the shark sanctuary covers roughly 600,000 square kilometers, protecting species who are already endangered or vulnerable. In 2014 Palau declared an area the size of France a no commercial fishing zone, creating the largest marine sanctuary in the world.

In the United States, the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 amended the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (federal law governing the conservation and management of federal fisheries). Also, at the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Bangkok, countries agreed to increase protection for five commercially exploited species of sharks: oceanic whitetip shark; scalloped, smooth, and great hammerhead sharks; and the porbeagle shark. These protections begin on September 14, 2014.

These conservation measures are to be applauded, yet without enforcement, they will hardly make a dent in the rapid decline of shark fisheries. Without bold steps such as Palau’s — banning shark fishing 100 percent worldwide — it seems impossible that a species like this will ever recover.

Last week, while fishing with some friends, my son Joey called and said he caught a baby hammerhead shark down by the bridge. “You did put it back, didn’t you Joey?”

“Of course I did, Dad.”

Well, this is a start, I thought, hanging up. This is a start.



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