The Science of Sustainability

Shark Week and the State of Sharks

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This week millions of viewer’s eyes will be turned to Shark Week, the Discovery Channel's most popular program. With shows like "Top Five Eaten Alive", "Killer Sharks and Rogue Sharks", the program continues to dish up blood, teeth and fear, while perpetuating the irrational perception that sharks are killing machines.

On average ten humans die from sharks each year. On the contrary over 100 million sharks are killed as bycatch and in fisheries in the same period of time. The fact is that while shark attacks on humans are relatively rare, sharks die at the hands of humans by the tens of thousands each day in the open ocean, near shore and in marine reserves. Most of these sharks are killed for their fins to supply the shark fin soup trade.

Like the tusks of African elephants, the high demand for the luxury trade in shark fins is driving sharks to extinction.

The practice of shark finning is to target sharks solely for the valuable fin while discarding the body at sea. The demand for fins for the luxury dish shark fin soup is creating a huge incentive to kill sharks just for the fin, while discarding the less valuable body.

To stem this tide of destruction Pacific Island nations like Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the State of Hawaii have established shark sanctuaries and banned not only the practice of fining, but the sale of shark fin themselves. It is hoped that reducing the consumption will reduce the demand and help protect shark populations. In California, similar legislation is being proposed to help protect sharks in US and international waters. Currently in Senate Committee, the California Shark Protection Act, AB 376 would ban the trade, sale and possession of shark fin in California.

In my travels as a filmmaker, I have seen ships rails lines with shark fins off the Galapagos, drifting longlines loaded with sharks near Cocos Island, and shops in San Francisco stacked with bins and jars of shark fins. Shark fin soup is on the menu of hundreds of Bay Area restaurants. Customs records indicate that most shark fins entering California are being imported from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Hong Kong. Many of these fins are from endangered species and plausibly from marine reserves. Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences have sequenced the DNA of shark fins purchased in San Francisco and found threatened and vulnerable species. Nearly one third of all shark species are listed as threatened with extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists estimate that some large open ocean sharks like the oceanic whitetip have been fished to mere remnants of their original population. Sharks are the regulators of marine ecosystems. They are the surgeons and the sanitarians and keep the ocean healthy and clean. Without sharks, the ecosystems decay into an unhealthy state that disrupts reefs, the fish we eat and ultimately the air we breathe.

Where the practice of finning is deplorable even by opponents of AB 376, some senators have claimed the law is an attack on Asian culture. They propose to allow shark fins for sale from sustainable shark fisheries, although it would be difficult to identify such a thing. By their nature as the top predator, there are fewer sharks than other fish. Their biology makes sharks extremely vulnerable to overfishing because they cannot rebound. A targeted shark fishery will ultimately reduce the population to an unsustainable level. We experienced this in San Francisco with the sevengill and soupfin shark fisheries in the mid-20th century. If this amendment is allowed, the market for shark fins will be opened and black market fins will enter the trade. Tracing a shark fin to a boat or a fishery is extremely difficult, and Fish and Game officials do not have the ability to distinguish illegal fins from legal fins.

This loophole will allow sharks to be finned: business as usual. This August, Californians can step up and protect sharks, or allow special interests to water down or kill the shark protection bill. A healthy ocean is essential for the welfare of all cultures, and cultures can adapt their tastes to do the right thing. The ban on Caspian caviar is a perfect example.

This "Shark Week" while we are watching the thrilling images of sharks gnashing at cages or reenacting shark attacks, we should be thinking of future films titled, "Dead Water and Empty Ocean". We need to stop fearing sharks and fear for their future, and the future of a healthy ocean. To learn more, go to seastewards.org.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology

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David McGuire

About the Author ()

An avid writer, surfer and ocean voyager, David McGuire is the founder of the conservation non profit Sea Stewards and is an advocate for a healthy ocean. As Captain, Dive Master and Cinematographer, David has explored the world ocean on numerous sailing voyages collecting media with an emphasis on ocean awareness.Educated in Marine Biology, he holds a masters degree in Environmental Health and has worked in education and public health at the University of California at Berkeley for over a decade. David is the writer, producer and underwater cinematographer of the award winning documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, and was writer and cinematographer on a film on California Marine Protected Areas, and Palmyra Atoll. David has written, filmed and produced a new documentary on the Sharks of San Francisco Bay and has worked as cameraman on feature films such as 180 South and A Beautiful Wave. His underwater filmwork on San Francisco elasmobranches and ecosystems continues and he frequently donates his work for conservation causes. As Field and Research Associate with the California Academy of Sciences, David is Project Manager of a shark research program on the San Francisco Bay and has initiated a new sharks awareness campaign: Shark Sanctuary San Francisco. Through expedition sailing and video production, Sea Stewards is exploring and explaining our ocean world, influencing policies and practices from sustainable fishing to marine protection. Through Sea Steward Studios, our Media Production work is used to influence sound policies and sustainable ocean practices. Current work includes a series on Sea Turtle Conservation in Mexico, a film with partners Team Fish Finders using local fishermen to promote catch and release and a documentary on local sustainable seafood and a Cordell Banks Expedition.
  • Anita

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, David. We Californians who care about the ocean cannot allow AB 376 to be amended.

  • cataldo

    David,

    Thanks for the update. Did you see where Oregon is joining the battle? I think we can win in California. Perhaps we need to note in new legislators who are truly pro-environment and then get it passed.

    Oregon joins fight against shark finning
    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2011/08/shark-finning-ban-oregon.html

  • http://theplayoflife.org Ila

    Thank you for writing this enlightening article, David. The demonization of sharks by Discovery is obscene, and has not only erected a barrier to the protection of these unusual animals, but stands squarely in the way of an effort to understand their true nature and the details of their free lives. I appreciate your efforts to publicize the effects of making people fear sharks, the water, the oceans and all that is unknown in it; in America I am continually encountering people who, through watching Discovery Channel specifically, are in permanent fear of the possible life forms in any body of water.