In 2010, shark conservationists and scientists across California led by David McGuire of Shark Stewards joined in a battle to outlaw the sell and trade of shark fin products in the state. In my own efforts to aid this campaign I discovered over and over again that most people I spoke with were shocked that such a ban didn’t already exist in “our progressive state” and thus I was reminded of the importance of creating awareness. The proposition battled its way through heavy opposition from lobbyists, but finally passed. It was a great day for sharks and California.
Last night, in his efforts to continue promoting awareness, McGuire held a free presentation to a packed crowd at Patagonia in San Francisco regarding the battles won, lost, and still to come in the grim world of shark finning. Considering the troubling recent proposed changes in legislation that the United Sates is considering this seemed like an opportune time to ask the local expert more abou the battle to save sharks, so I caught up with David after the event.
WSV: David, it seems the shark fin ban in California has barely gone into effect and it is already facing a big threat. Considering the state of pelagic shark populations and the horrific nature of shark finning, how can National Marine Fisheries department even reconsider their stance on finning?
DM: The US is one of about 40 nations, more now that the EU has joined, with regulations banning shark finning (killing a shark just for the fins). In 2000 when President Clinton passed the Federal Shark Conservation Act, killing sharks for just fins became illegal in US waters and by US vessels. However, there were several loopholes that allowed sharks to be landed without fins which allowed more sharks to be taken for their fins, and a pretty noteworthy case where a US flagged vessel laden with shark fins was boarded off Central America, the crew was arrested and the vessel towed to San Diego. This vessel claimed it was not finning but only transporting them. The company won in Federal Court and the ship was released. These loopholes were closed under the 2010 amendment and are now potentially back on the table.
It is also potentially undermining our state shark fin bans by allowing some sharks to be landed with fins detached and the fins to be exported. This sabotages shark fishery management and allows the illegally harvested fins to mix with the US fins. We aren’t going to let this happen.
In their defense, the National Marine Fisheries Service is just one of 6 offices under NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). NOAA is actually part of the Department of Commerce rather than an environmental agency. Commercial fisheries influence congressmen, then these congressmen do their thing to get re-elected. That usually means jobs in the short term at a loss for fisheries and ecosystems in the future.
WSV: That sounds exceptionally complicated. I’m still not sure I understand how unsustainable fishing is allowed to take place despite overwhelming evidence that it is bad.
DM: In the US we have the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which sets the maximum sustainable yield for a fishery. Unfortunately, we generally don’t understand the biology and the ecology well enough and the Maximum yield is not sustainable, consequently the population collapses. This “sustainable” number is usually set too high and regulated with questionable effectiveness (indeed, a quick Wiki search conferred that MSFCMA has been criticized for its failure to stem overfishing). Thus the population does collapse, and the fishery is shut down. Unfortunately, congressmen push to have the fishery reopened and recommendations against such action are all too often ignored.
WSV: In your presentation tonight you mentioned a disappointing occurrence in Texas. Tell me more.
DM: Following victories here on the west coast, Hawaii and even Illinois just last year, we have been working for (nearly a year) on a bill in Texas to ban shark fin trade there. We were at the finish line when the very congressman who had authored the bill turned around and vetoed the bill. We sailed through the House and I felt our testimony in the Senate and House committees had convinced the politicians that this is important for the health fo the ocean and the Gulf. We had overwhelming support by the public including aquariums and zoos led by the Moody Garden aquarium in Galveston. We had shark fishermen who catch and release come out in support. Texans are concerned about local species being poached for fins in the Gulf by Mexican fishermen. We are concerned about the lack of accountability of this trade. All our hard work died right there with two powerful senators. It was a sad reminder of how an individual can be influenced by the commercial fishing industry.
WSV: Speaking of Texas, you were quoted in the LA times recently regarding the Texas trophy hunter who landed a record 1,300 pound mako shark. What’s the story?
DM: Well, I wanted to convey that a catch and release mentality would be preferable to killing the shark. This magnificent predator survived probably 15-20 years to reach this size only to be struck down just as she’d reached the peak of her reproductive years. She’d returned to the warm southern California waters where many animals come to pup and was possibly pregnant. This kind of macho trophy killing for records should be a relic of the past. There are too few large predators any more, and these large female sharks are especialluy important to the population. It’s important not to destroy animals that are of reproductive age when their populations are already fragile. This was all about being on a big game adventure TV show.
If the guy wants a thrill he should jump in the water with a Mako. Now that’s thrilling.
WSV: Is the fishing of large animals particular harmful to sharks?
DM: It is. Let’s say we banned the commercial fishing of tuna for a few years. That species has a decent likelihood of recovering because they reproduce at a high rate. Top level predators like the mako shark or white shark are designed by nature not to reproduce at a high rate, therefore its much harder and takes much longer for such a species to recover.
WSV: What about the fishermen’s defense of “donating the shark to science”?
DM: What a joke. The physiology of makos is well understood. We might learn something of what the shark ate but that can be determined in other ways without killing the shark. Science needs a tiny sample of flesh for genetics, not the entire animal; the rest of the body was a waste. What we need are living sharks to keep our oceans healthy and balanced, especially sharks of reproductive size and age.
WSV: It seems that the thrill of the chase would be the biggest draw for a sportsman. Why go ahead and kill the shark when you’ve already won the battle?
DM: The IGFA requires that the fishing equipment and the fish be inspected in order to be officially entered in the record books, therefore the shark had to be brought to shore. Keep in mind, the fishermen had to go several miles into the open ocean to track down an animal like this and the fisherman admitted he had been on countless expeditions running through tons of bait to catch this record shark- all for a reality TV show.…This was an animal that was simply existing and doing its job far from man before it was hunted down to satisfy the ego of one fisherman.
WSV: In 2007 much of the world first learned of the finning industry through the movie Shark Water. Around the same time you had a similar experience in some of the same areas featured in that film.
DM: In 2003 I became aware of shark finning first hand in French Polynesia diving reefs with hundreds of sharks, and then we dove other islands where the sharks had all been fished out. In the main port I watched as the small boats unloaded tuna but not a single shark body. Yet the rails of the ship were lined with shark fins. I later learned the magnitude of this phenomenon
Later I worked in Costa Rica at Cocos Island with Randall Arauz of PRETOMA and in the Galapagos with Sea Shepherd while making the film 180 South with Patagonia. These aggregations of Hammerheads are literally getting hammered for their fins- among the most coveted for shark fin soup. There is too much financial incentive for these fishermen to poach sharks for their fins and too little enforcement. That’s why the fin trade needs to be restricted. Shark water did a great job exposing the practice by bringing the issue to a broad audience. We were alone in the US, with Wild Aid working in Asia. Now there are scores of shark conservation groups all over the world, introducing shark fin bans and better regulations. There is some hope but we have to be vigilant.
Although sharks are protected in the marine park Cocos Islands, in these “protected” waters I witnessed sharks being fished without enforcement because the rangers have one small boat and the area is vast. There was a time when I would watch scalloped hammerheads swim overhead in the hundreds…they just kept going and going. They’re such beautiful, gentle creatures…even my bubbles would scare them away. Well, now you’re lucky to see a handful in the same waters…this is why the scalloped hammerhead is featured in Shark Steward’s logo.
WSV: I hear sad stories of government corruption and pressure from China to keep fins coming in from smaller, developing countries…it gets quite depressing to hear similar stories over and over. Is there anyone doing a good job of upholding protection laws?
DM: Randall, whom I mentioned earlier, has been the Central American shark hero. He has exposed corruption, engaged leaders, exposed illegal fin operations and is building a coalition among other Central American countries to build better shark management agreements and enforcement.
Palau is doing a great job. They’ve learned that a live shark is worth more than a dead one. Ecotourism is a huge industry. If your sharks are all dead you don’t have any shark diving. Furthermore, if your sharks are dead your coral reefs die and you lose the ecotourism and ecosystem services your reefs bring in. Like many places, their resources are limited, but they are self motivated to enforce their laws.
WSV: Seems like a no-brainer. Why isn’t this the case in more places, especially first world countries with resources?
DM: For one thing, Palau is an atoll, a relatively small area that can be observed and enforced more easily than say the entire South African coast.
Also, we’re talking about billion dollar industries that stand to lose a lot of money if fishing or finning is cut back. There's also the small guys just trying to get by who haven't bought into alternatives yet. It’s a battle between immediate profiteering and planning for the future. As discussed before, the commercial fishing industry has its ways of influencing others to see things their way. But economics can play on the side of conservation. One study estimates a single shark is worth nearly 1 million dollars in services to toursim in Palau over its lifetime. Alternatively, a fishermen might make 100 for the fins and that’s it. Shark toursim and the diving and ecotourism industry may just be the savior of many local shark populations.
WSV: What’s next?
DM: I’m heading to Samporna in South Malaysia to help the locals establish a shark sanctuary. It’s a beautiful place with tons of sharks and rays but at risk from the fishermen. This region is being heavily fished for sharks and fish that go to China. I’m also going to Hong Kong to meet and investigate the shark fin trade. One of my board members is a famous Chinese actress and diver and we are trying to raise awareness in the place where most shark fin is traded. I’ll be faced with a lot of support and a lot of opposition (depending on which side of shark conservation people stand on) so it will be interesting.
WSV: What can we do?
DM: Let your voice be heard and your actions seen. Tell your congressman you do not want to weaken our federal laws.. .We are commenting on the proposed exemptions of US fishermen to land and sell fins, and your voice can be added to our online petition. If you see stores selling unsustainable seafood politely tell them your feelings and stop going there. Like shark fin, or blue fin sushi for that matter, our consumption can dictate the market. And of course you can support conservation organizations, like mine!
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About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.