Sharks are disappearing from our oceans at the rate of 100 million per year, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Marine Policy. After withstanding the last five extinctions, a creature responsible for only six to 12 human deaths each year is now the prey of humans, and is now in danger of disappearing in what biologist EO Wilson calls the Sixth Great Extinction.
Humanity’s bite out of the shark population holds dire consequences. Oceans produce 70 percent of our oxygen and are thus essential to life on earth. As the ocean’s apex predators, sharks occupy the top of the food chain and are essential to maintaining the ecological balance of the sea. As shark populations deteriorate, so too will oceanic health – and the value chain that represents the ocean or “blue” economy. This simple syllogism is rapidly becoming a reality.
The culprit is overfishing, which is primarily driven by the shark fin trade. Shark finning is a practice that provides the key ingredient for shark fin soup, a status symbol in China and in other countries with Chinese populations, which now sells for as much as US $100 a bowl. After more than 400 million years on planet Earth, sharks are being destroyed to support the lucrative trade in shark fins necessary for creating the delicacy.
An inhumane and unsustainable practice, shark finning occurs when fishermen catch sharks, cut off the fins (which sell for as much as $800 per pound), and carelessly toss the animals back into the sea, many of them still alive. Since their carcasses are only worth pennies a pound, many fishermen focus only on the fins. For sharks as well as for the people who depend on the blue economy, the cruel practice exacts a terrible toll to maintain a market that yields profits for so few.
Already, numbers of some species such as oceanic white tip sharks have plummeted to one percent of their original population in the Atlantic. While we still do not know the full scope of the impact on some species, we do know that one third of open-ocean sharks are endangered. If something cannot be done to reverse the decline, scientists warn that the collapse of the sea may be imminent.
Fortunately, recent developments offer hope. Research into the economic value of sharks shows that they are worth much more swimming in the sea than in soup dishes. The estimated value of a shark can be as much as $2m for some island communities. In Fiji, shark diving tourism is worth $42m per year, and in French Polynesia, lemon shark diving brings in $15.4m.
In Palau, where diving tourism yields 39 percent of the country’s GDP, killing a shark can result in upwards of $250,000 in fines and an additional $250,000 for each section removed, such as the fins. That is why coastal communities such as the Bahamas, Honduras, Palau, Maldives and Ecuador are establishing shark sanctuaries to prohibit the killing of sharks and support the eco-tourism so essential to their island economies.
In terms of international policy, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) just voted to protect three species of hammerhead sharks. Among the most coveted for shark fin soup, these gentle sharks are becoming rapidly overfished, even in protected areas like the Galapagos Islands.
While these developments indicate promise, shark populations remain in danger as long as the market for shark fins thrives. In her book Demon Fish, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin interviews shark fin dealers for their take on the matter. One dealer named Lin Ying Jui calls shark fin a “luxury” product, which her shop in Sai Ying Poon makes available for customers who are rich enough to buy. It is simple economics, really. Give the customer what they want or risk losing their business to another. If sharks disappear from the sea in pursuit of retail profits, so be it. As Eilperin reports, “‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’ says Lin. ‘We have to accept it.'”
Thankfully, such defeatism is not preventing a global surge in action on behalf of sharks from divers, activists, policymakers, scientists and writers who collectively constitute the international shark advocacy community. The group is itself a renewable resource, lending support to protect sharks on local, regional, national and international fronts.
Law to save sharks
Heightened awareness is leading to greater protection for sharks. To reduce supply, the US has a law against live finning in our waters and approximately 40 other countries have similar laws against the practice. To address fatalism like that of Lin, the Hong Kong shark fin trader, US states have begun to pass shark fin trade bans to help reduce the demand for the luxury dish.
For my part, after reading a report on one particularly gruesome incident involving 2,000 dead, finless sharks off the coast of Colombia, I contacted shark conservationist and marine biologist David McGuire to see if there was anything that Texas could do. McGuire’s organisation had successfully spearheaded the California and Illinois bans, and has campaigns in the works in several other states.
Since partnering with McGuire’s organisation Shark Stewards, a San Francisco-based non-profit, I have been introduced to an international community of shark advocates that extends all the way to China. In my home state of Texas, Shark Stewards has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to move a bi-partisan bill successfully through the Senate and House committee hearings. If Texas succeeds, our state will become the sixth state to pass the bill, and the first “red state” in America to lead on the issue.
“There are no easy solutions,” says McGuire, “but there are a few things we can do here at home. Local fishermen can support releasing sharks after catching them.” And, he says, “Avoiding unsustainable seafood and supporting shark fin trade reductions helps reduce killing sharks in international waters. Concerned ocean citizens can also support Shark Stewards’ international appeal to the UN to ban the practice of shark finning worldwide as we have here in the USA.”
The blue economy is in precarious condition, and we need more people to join the effort to save it. The effects of the ocean going out of balance is costing lives and livelihoods as coral reefs collapse and other systems are impaired. The ocean coastal zone is a natural resource that provides two-thirds of the world’s GDP. As the regulators of the sea, sharks are essential to maintaining the balance required for the rest of the food chain to thrive – humanity included.
Anna M Clark is president of EarthPeople and the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits. She has written for The Guardian and The Huffington Post and writes the Eco-Leadership column for Greenbiz.com. She is a Public Voices fellow at The Op-Ed Project and writes on culture, leadership and sustainability.