…Actually, it’s more like 100 million and could be as much as 273 million. That’s 11,417 sharks killed every hour, primarily for their fins – a fuck of a lot. It’s hard to imagine killing that many mosquitos every hour, never mind an apex predator / endangered species / animal that has survived for 400 million years (but there’s a handy infographic at the bottom of this post that will help a bit with visualization). We’ve been warned that if declines in marine species continue at the current rate, the world will run out of seafood by 2048. Susan Carey, author of ‘Devil’s Teeth‘, puts it another way:
“The aquatic environment is being altered radically before we’ve even begun to understand it, an insane game of brinksmanship with potentially catastrophic results. And even as $10 billion is allocated for interplanetary exploration, ocean conservationists – monitoring 71% of the earth – struggle for funding. Meanwhile commercial fishing remains a zero-sum game, habitats are being destroyed, species lost forever.”
This is obscene. I didn’t know whether to start with the facts or with a heart-felt plea but now that there are several statistics in play, here’s the plea: let’s save sharks NOW. We are killing them faster than they can reproduce and we are well past the point of a sustainable shark fishery. We have to get on this before there are no sharks – or fish! – left at all and while the issue of over-fishing and the collapse of regional fisheries is a big one (and well worth being informed about), sharks are close to my heart so I’m starting here.
Finning is a barbaric where the dorsal and pectoral fins of a live shark are cut off and the shark is tossed back into the ocean where it drowns. 90% of the meat is wasted. While shark meat is not uncommon in some cultures, most of the sharks being killed now are killed by being finned in order to maximize the ship’s haul with the most valuable parts. The fins are destined for shark fin soup, a centuries-old Chinese delicacy that used to be reserved for royalty but in more recent years the demand for shark fin soup has risen exponentially with the rising nouveau riche to a point where it is severely impacting the balance of the ocean.
Sharks grow very slowly and have a long gestation period, sometimes only birthing a couple of pups every few years, so they don’t stand a chance when they’re being killed off in such record numbers. Not surprisingly, many shark species have declined by more than 90% in the last 50 years and more than a third of all shark species (more than 500 in total) are facing extinction.
For a soup that apparently doesn’t even have a distinct taste, this is just not okay.
Sharks are important to healthy marine life because as the ocean’s apex predator, they keep the food chain in balance and the oceans healthy by preying on sick and weak animals, keeping the next lower level of fish stock in good shape. Without sharks, the lower carnivore classes would bloat and become disease-ridden, degrading the species and over time these species will die out and we’ll be left with only algae and jellies. Susan Carey writes in ‘Devil’s Teeth’ that, “Monkeying around with the balance of nature is the ultimate fool’s game. Strip away the top of the food chain and the bottom is likely to sprawl with opportunistic animals dominating and breeding unchecked. Worms, viruses, parasites and their ilk having a high old time. Oceans without sharks would be a pest-filled affair, and that’s only the most obvious side effect.”
This is happening. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to go and see what there is to see under the sea but in the years that I’ve been diving, I’ve already noticed the decline and I spend far less time in shark-infested waters than other experts. One of the first times I saw a shark was in 2005 at the Blue Hole in Belize. And I didn’t just see one shark. As we descended to 130 feet we saw huge sharks all the way down and back up again (with a couple of huge groupers thrown in for good measure). They were interested in us divers as a curiosity, swimming past at a distance to get a better look (or smell) but posed no danger. I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I was grinning into my regulator but the dive master I was swimming beside me was going out of his mind, pointing to all the sharks and making the sign for “shark” and then “big fucking shark” over and over again. On the surface later, I learned that despite coming to this site regularly for work, he had never seen so many sharks. Neither had I, obviously, and sometimes I think that I’m not likely to again. This shark research program (that I hope to participate in) writes about Belize, “My team has deployed baited remote underwater videos (BrUVs)—underwater video traps to count sharks and other fish—on reefs where gillnets and fishing are allowed, and found that sharks are nearly absent on these reefs.” In the Bahamas we scoured reefs that, while healthy, were quiet. No sharks for days and when they did show up it was a handful of tiny ones. And this in a place that has banned shark fishing in favour of promoting shark tourism.
Why are we allowing this to happen? Is it only because we can’t see to the bottom that we assume the sea will keep providing, no matter how much we take out of it? Is it because sharks have an image problem and no one cares if they’re killed by the thousands? No one eats lions or gorillas any more. Worldwide awareness have helped to protect them enough that those species are stable. Whale populations have been able to bounce back from the brink of extinction now that most of the world has agreed to stop whaling. Sharks can be the new whales.
There’s been some progress. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) have granted three hammerhead species, the porbeagle shark, the oceanic whitetip, and both types of manta rays protected status along with the basking shark, whale shark, and great white shark on Appendix II, which requires permits to export.
CITES plenary today accepted Committee recommendations to list five species of highly traded sharks under the CITES Appendices, along with those for the listing of both manta rays and one species of sawfish. Japan, backed by Gambia and India, unsuccessfully challenged the Committee decision to list the oceanic whitetip shark, while Grenada and China failed in an attempt to reopen debate on listing three hammerhead species. Colombia, Senegal, Mexico and others took the floor to defend Committee decisions to list sharks.
In addition to protecting those shark species, this plenary has generated a lot of increased awareness in sharks and shark conservation. There’s hope.
An interviewee in The End of the Line (a documentary about over-fishing) says, “Man is not going to change and the sea is going to be dead because man is crazy.“ I don’t believe that. I can’t. I believe that people are generally good and that they’l make the right decisions if they’re informed. I believe that if enough people are informed the social pressure will change culture. I believe we have a chance, but we don’t have very much time.
What You Can Do
- Sign the petition to ban shark fin trade in Canada. Fin Donnelly, MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody is trying to get a petition signed to ban the importation of shark fins into Canada. Although an estimated 81% of Canadians supported the ban, it was defeated by a vote of 138 for and 143 against. We can keep trying though – here is his version of the petition to ban the importation of shark fins to Canada.
- Do not eat shark fin soup or buy any shark products, including meat, oil, cartilage, or teeth. Don’t let your friends or coworkers or acquaintances eat shark or buy shark products.
- Use a sustainable fisheries app or website such as OceanWise, Fish2Fork or Seafood Watch to avoid eating misnamed fish products from unsustainable fisheries.
- Claim your piece of the ocean by pledging your support.
- Pledge to become a David Suzuki Ocean Keeper.
- Check out this list of resources and ideas at stopsharkfinning.net and this list at sharkangels.org.
- Be informed. Watch the End of the Line, Sharkwater, Revolution and the Cove and whatever else you can find out there. Read Bottomfeeder and any other literature you can get your hands on.
Sharks killed 12 people last year. We killed 100 million sharks – that’s 11,417 sharks killed every hour. Joe Chernov created this infographic to help visualize that number: