Although we tend to think of sharks as aggressive man-eaters, the reality is quite the opposite. In fact, nearly 100,000,000 sharks are killed each year as a result of human behaviors. Yes, that is 100 MILLION! Part of this is the result of what is called “by-catch”, sharks being caught in nets meant for other fish.
The other is due to large scale shark finning. Hundreds, if not thousands, of shark fins decorated the rooftops of Hong Kong as they dried in the hot sun. The harvest is driven by demand for shark fin soup, a status symbol and delicacy in Chinese culture. Perhaps the worst part is the process of ‘shark finning’. Sharks are often live-caught, their fins cut off the moment they hit the deck, and then the still-living remains are thrown back into the ocean. This isn’t just wasteful – it’s cruel.
As apex predators, sharks govern marine ecosystems by keeping mid-level predator populations under control. If left ungoverned, these mid-level predators would overeat the smaller fish. Without these small fish to graze on algae and maintain the habitat, coral reefs would become desolate places. This is what scientists call a “trophic cascade” – a collapse of an ecosystem. Sharks are slow growing creatures who give birth to few offspring, two characteristics that make their populations susceptible to overfishing, a problem beginning to come to light under the pressures of shark finning. Even though the Hong Kong government recently made steps towards decreasing demand for shark fin soup, shark fisheries continue to be a profitable and under regulated endeavor.
Although sharks have long been feared, a growing awareness of their ecological importance as well as the surge in popularity of “shark diving” are spurring campaigns worldwide to protect these top predators. Divers worldwide pay premium prices to dive, sometimes under the protection of a ‘cage’, with living sharks. Large aggregations of hammerhead sharks attract divers to remote destinations such as the Galapagos, while snorkeling whale sharks has become a popular diving experience wherever these large creatures aggregate. On a recent dive trip to the Galapagos with Cousteau Divers, I had the opportunity to dive with silky sharks, reef sharks, requiem sharks, and whale sharks. The amount of money each diver onboard that vessel paid to see these creatures in the wild certainly exceeded any possible profit from a one-time shark fin harvest.
Economics aside, what value can convey the immense awe of swimming alongside a whale shark, swimming breathlessly as it effortlessly glides through the currents? Such an experience is unparalleled. Despite their immensity, whale sharks are gentle giants who feed on krill and plankton. Although popular destinations to dive with whale sharks include Australia, Belize, and the Galapagos, did you know whale sharks could also be found in the Gulf of Mexico? In the summer months, divers who venture to the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary may come across a whale shark, in addition to dusky sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. Yet even these gentle giants cannot escape human threats, including habitat loss and the international trade of shark fins and meat.
Think back to your last experience diving with sharks, or diving in any reef in the Caribbean. What value can measure the exhilaration of snorkeling amongst a school of silky sharks, some who, out of curiosity only matched by my own, venture a little too close for comfort? Even more importantly, how could we even begin to estimate the value of a healthy coral reef ecosystem governed by its sharks? Consumers may continue to demand shark fin soup, but one must ask – at what cost?
While the shark fin industry primarily targets consumers of the Chinese culture, the shark tourism industry attracts naturalists, snorkelers, scuba divers, and photographers from nationalities worldwide. Isn’t it safe to say that the latter would be more desirable?
Citizens worldwide are uniting to raise concern for the protection of sharks. If we don’t protect our sharks, the subjects of some of our favorite underwater experiences, who will? Meet Shark Stanley – the charismatic hammerhead shark who is educating children and people worldwide about the threats of the global trade of shark fins and manta ray gill rakers. The campaign is unique and fun – take a photograph with Shark Stanley, or one of his friends, and share it online. This is your ‘signature’ to support the international protection of Oceanic Whitetip, Porbeagle, and Hammerhead sharks and manta rays at the March 2013 CITES conference.
The campaign centers on youth education, through a recently published children’s book and children’s activities. After all – they will be the ones to inherit the ocean ecosystems we leave behind. We need to work together to ensure that these oceans are not empty of sharks. That our future generations can still experience the same awe and exhilaration we feel during any underwater encounter with a shark or ray.
This article was written for Calypso Divers by Stephanie Stefanski, writer of the blog, Ocean Diplomat (http://oceandiplomat.wordpress.com/about/)