Just want to share a few thoughts from a quick excerpt of an interview with Phil Waller, Director of Extinction Soup, while we were at the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.
For those that don’t know, Phil and executive producer Stefanie Brendl made a movie documenting the battle to pass a shark fin ban in Hawaii. The film provides gorgeous footage and takes the viewer on an emotional ride as we see the beauty of sharks juxtaposed against the same animals being slaughtered in inhumane fashion. But I found the political battle particularly unnerving as it brought back memories of California’s own struggle to pass a shark fin ban only a few years ago. Just like in San Francisco, the fishing industry resorted to hiring lobbyists to declare the ban as racist attack on Chinese culture (If you still want to send him hate mail, the senator in San Francisco was Leland Yee).
"Almost nothing under the moon kills less people than sharks do!" - pw
Politics led our discussion to Western Australia where sharks are being slaughtered in the very waters they are supposed to be protected in. Public Safety, not culture, is the scapegoat for this political agenda, and it was while discussing the concept of trying to make people safe from sharks that Phil stated the glaringly obvious; not only do sharks kill a very small number of people, but they KILL LESS PEOPLE than almost ANYTHING ELSE on this planet. Repeat that in your head a few times. We’ve all heard the stats about coconuts and vending machines, etc., but I think the concept really sinks in when you try to list things that DON’T kill more people than sharks rather than what DO. How can public safety be a reason to kill sharks when it’s not enough of a reason to dispose of the rest of the offenders on the list?
Phil did a great job of being positive, but I’m obviously a bit of a pessimist when it comes to conservation and politics living happily together. But as he said, all we can do is keep trying and spreading the word because ignorance still outweighs knowledge and that can only change by sharing information. So, keep spreading the word and fighting the fight!
And yes, I know I look homeless in this interview. I’ll clean up when the film is over.
Today's entry is a discussion topic and I hope you'll participate as it helps me know when my theories are on target or misguided.
The most disturbing part of editing my documentary today was hearing Fischer say to a journalist "If not us, then who? There's no one behind us, I'd be helping them if they were there." Obviously this statement dismisses the multitude of researchers who have been working hard for decades before OCEARCH came into existence while also dismissing published data and efforts to change legislation. It also implies there was no one for him to donate his wealth to support rather than starting his own company. Which leads me to my discussion topic. I know researchers that decided to team up with Fischer and I know researchers who rejected him on the grounds that they didn't like his reputation or methods. The theme that keeps ringing in my head is that this all seems to boil down to money, or rather a lack thereof. Researchers need funding and equipment to continue their work...so perhaps the root of the problem is a general lack of funding. If there was no lack of funding perhaps there would be no foothold for people like Fischer to jump into the game.
If you don’t mind taking the time to discuss, please focus on these two questions:
A couple of years ago I made a very short film explaining how the disappearance of white sharks from Gansbaai, South Africa affected the local human population, particularly the fishermen. To summarize, the white shark population had been greatly damaged due to over hunting and as a consequence the seal population exploded, which in turn led to a decrease in fish available for fishermen. The white shark was eventually protected from hunting, its population rebounded, and the seal population returned to a more manageable number.
Thousands of miles from Gansbaai, a similar story has been taking place. The characters are the same, but the order of events is different, and this time it’s happening in New England. In this case it was the over hunting of the seal that led to the disappearance of the white shark from the area, thus when the seal became protected and its population rebounded, the white sharks began showing up again to hunt this food source.
I personally find it intriguing to learn about members of nature’s food chain playing out their roles, especially when the same roles can be seen taking place in multiple locations on the globe. For me it’s a reminder of the how unique the white shark is (the only fish designed to hunt mammals). At the same time I find it disturbing to see the similarities in man’s role in these stories. It seems that every time we take matters into our own hands we end up disrupting a balance that had previously been set in place by Mother Nature. Removing ourselves from the system is what allows balance to be restored.
Since 2009 there has been a slow increase in white sharks returning to the area, undoubtedly catching on to the fact that they can once again find yummy seals. While the appearance of white sharks on beaches may alarm many, it’s actually good news, especially for the fishermen. I don’t know the magic number that constitutes a “healthy population” of seals, but I did see a lot of them when I visited Cape Cod in August and the fishermen are not too happy about it. And thus we reach the point in my blog where I inevitably become cynical about mankind. Read on if you dare.
In theory, when the population of white sharks reaches a higher number, the number of seals will in turn be reduced, hopefully reaching a nice balance over time. However, this requires man to be tolerant of an increased presence of an animal that can, albeit rarely does, kill humans. When a mistake is made and a person is bitten, or God forbid killed by a white shark, will there be a cull to reduce the numbers of sharks as is happening in Western Australia? In an interview with the Boston Globe, fisherman Kenny Kassan states, “Until somebody’s kid doesn’t come out of the water, they’re not going to do anything about it”. Ken Murray, a fisherman of Nantucket adds, “It’s just a matter of time before a shark mistakes a kayaker or a windsurfer out there for a seal,” he says. “Somebody’s going to get bit. “
Maybe someone will. Maybe someone won’t. But how we react if does happen will be very interesting. Will we accept that we are sharing the planet with other predators and accept this as an unfortunate incident, or once again take nature into our own hands? The seals will be to blame or the sharks will be to blame, but somehow we will remain faultless. I find this particularly ironic since Chatham just received the media sensation OCEARCH into their waters with open arms, who, according to an eyewitness on the research vessel, “use a massive hydraulic press to pump out a chum slick behind the boat all day long, every day at sea.” A chum slick that is carried by a current to other beaches in the Cape Cod area. Several beaches were closed due to shark sightings during this time. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but for some reason the sharks showed up at bathing beaches far away from their normal seal hunting beaches.
I was in Chatham to learn about the white shark research taking place there, but I unexpectedly got a taste of the battle between seal and fishermen. While grabbing lunch in Chatham Harbor I witnessed a boat unloading its catch for the day. Several gray seals were in the harbor hoping to catch a dropped fish during the unloading process. Now, I don’t have anything against fishermen or fishing, but I did find myself questioning the methods that we now use to catch fish as I watched the longline boat unload its catch. For close to an hour, I watched one boat, a small boat, in a line of many boats waiting to unload, dump crate after crate of dead fish that had been taken from the sea that day. “Fishing” is not the term that came to mind as I watched this. Rape of the ocean or an attempted genocide of a species rang more true.
I’ve read several articles showcasing the comments of fishermen who feel their livelihood is being robbed from them due to the seals eating their fish. Indeed, as the ocean struggles to produce the numbers of fish it has in the past, for whatever reason(s) we want to blame, it seems fishermen are going to have a harder time making a living. But what does “making a living” mean? Should that term be equated with fishing? Should it be equated with putting food on the table for the family? I don’t believe so. Instead, I think the problem is that we as a species don’t think we should have to adapt to survive. Instead we think we should change our surroundings to match our own desires.
When a fisherman brings in 30,000 pounds of fish in one catch, I don’t believe dealing with hunger is the pressing issue on his mind. More likely the concerns are profit margins, paying a mortgage, paying for a car, paying for kids to go to school, etc. Don't get me wrong, you should be able to send your kids to school, but let's not pretend we've worked hard to adapt to the current environmental challenges we've brought upon ourselves. I’ve read several articles in which fishermen are quoted as saying they are the next species to go extinct. At a naturalist training for the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary, when it was announced fishermen were restricted to a certain area to fish due to low numbers of certain species of fish, one man declared “I’m the next species that’s going to be extinct”. I was debating whether or not to feel sorry for him when he followed up with “I only made $170,000 last year”, at which point my thought quickly changed from potential sympathy to “$#%& you.”
“We can’t catch anything because of the seals.” says Cape Cod Fisherman Ernie Eldridge. He only caught several dozen menhaden and squid that day, a far cry from the 30,000 pounds of fish he once caught daily -NY Times. Yes, that sounds like a measly catch by comparison until you stop and actually think about the numbers, I mean really stop and ingest this information. 30,000 pounds? Daily!!? Even the bad catch of several dozens is still no small amount of fish. What are we talking, 36, 48, a hundred fish? In one day? You might not be making your mortgage payments, but you’re not anywhere near in danger of going hungry or extinct.
“I guarantee those seals have caught a hell of a lot more cod than the port of Chatham has,” said John Our, another fisherman. Well, John, after having filmed the video below, I’m going to have to disagree.
You may not like with what I said in this article, and perhaps I’m wrong about some things. But I’ll put money on this; if mankind does go extinct it won’t be due to sharks, seals, or any animal other than the most dangerous animal to ever inhabit this planet. You don’t need me to tell you who I mean.
Quick shout out to Sharon Young for stating in the Boston Globe article. “We have a stewardship responsibility,” says Young. “It’s our obligation to be benevolent to those over which we have power.
I’m learning a lot in this crazy, fever-pitched world of sharks. Not the least of which is a lesson I should already know; it’s not smart to make assumptions. For example, “scientist” is not synonymous with “conservationist” and it was my mistake to assume they went hand in hand. While many scientists may be conservation minded, it is not a requirement. It is their job to gather the data, not to save the shark. Hopefully the data they gather can be used to help conserve the shark, but again, that isn’t their job. So who’s job is it? That’s the million-dollar question and we’ll get to that.
Something else I learned is that “researcher” is not the same as “scientist”. I recently paid off my graduate school loans and was burdened by the idea that I needed to go back to school again for a biology degree in order to back up any films or statements I might make. It was at that time that a biologist friend of mine told me not to bother. Marine biology degrees or other such credentials are not required to conduct research*1, in fact, a surprisingly large number of “shark experts” do not have educational credentials in the same field of their research. Look no further than Shark Week if you doubt this. Not only are the majority of their “experts” not biologists, sometimes you’re lucky if they aren’t paid actors (See Megalodon Lives).
I’m not insinuating that one needs a degree to know what they’re talking about, there are number of people who spend ¾ of the year observing sharks in their environment, but don’t have credentials, yet I would say their time in the field qualifies them to know what they’re talking about, perhaps more so than those with credentials in some cases. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a revelation to discover I could go out and “study” sharks as long as I could come up with the means to do it.*2
When I was growing up, watching shark specials from a living room thousands of miles from the closest ocean, the mysterious and almost surreal world of the white shark struck me as one that only the elite of the scientific realm were allowed to enter… a who’s who club where not everyone was allowed to play…that those dealing with the sharks were the most capable available and the sharks were in the best hands possible.*3
But I digress. The point I’m slowly working my way to is that I’ve begun seriously wondering about the data that is being collected. Yet another assumption of mine was that the data being collected on these sharks was being put to the best use possible. What is done with it? Is all of it used? Does some of it end up in a file that work conditions simply make it impossible to ever have a chance to analyze? Is the collection of this data always useful? If not, why else gather it? Why else indeed. Sadly, the more people I talk to the more I hear answers indicating the data is less about the shark and more about the person doing the collection…From hoarding information, fighting over naming sharks, sabotaging tags, to fabricating stories about the competition, there’s definitely a blemish on the face of white shark research. Let me say that by no means am I putting all researchers in this category. And even those who are career oriented I can’t judge too harshly, for if they don’t have a career with funding...well, that makes it hard to have a career. But that in turn opens the door to question the motivation behind the research. After all, as a researcher, if you’re not out collecting data you’re not going to get your next grant, sponsorship, TV contract, paycheck, name in Science Today, or whatever the specific case may be, so doesn’t it behoove a researcher to not only justify his research, but to perhaps withhold findings from the rest of the scientific community or make misleading statements as to the value of the study being conducted? One "researcher" in particular has become a millionaire by justifying his sensationalist approach of gathering data. (If you're a researcher and hate my guts right now take a deep breath.)
Here’s some background. My introduction to white sharks came in 2004 when I spent a month and half volunteering to work on a boat in South Africa. Even then I remember the locals debating the value of tagging, referring to ‘tag overkill’. Here it is seven years later and every one of those years has been filled with the tagging and attempted tagging of sharks globally. "To date more than 300 sharks have been tagged with acoustic pingers in South Africa", says Chris Fallows, of Simons Town. If we were approaching tag overkill back in 2004 then where are we now? Granted, past tagging has proven to be very informative. We learned that white sharks swim between South Africa and Australia, from California to Hawaii. We learned about the mysterious “Shark Café” in the Pacific Ocean. I even learned that white sharks sometimes come under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay from time to time. But what about future tagging and data collection; How much do we need? What do we truly need to know? When does it end? Does it? When does its value reach a zenith? Have we already reached that zenith? Ichthyologist Jeff Reinhardt states, “As a shark biologist, I am against using extensive and lethal measures to find data that really doesn’t need to be known at the expense of a rare and protected species.”
Below I examine one organization that might be blurring the truth of data in order to ensure its own success.
There is currently a massive media sensation following an organization called OCEARCH, which is tagging sharks around the world. They happen to use methods of tagging that I disagree with (if you want to know why I disagree continue reading the fine print)*4. But who am I to disagree? Fair enough, ignore my opinion and let's put the tagging method aside; I am bothered by the fact that public interviews aired on television and published in papers include what I would consider misleading, if not altogether false statements. Why make such statements? To justify the research? To secure the ongoing career(s) and funding of the individual(s) involved? I’ll give you some examples of such quotes:
1. “We don’t know where they (the sharks) are, where they go, what they eat, why they are here”. This has ben repeated multiple times in news articles as well as video interviews. Well, I must offer disagreement with such statements. Other scientists published this data long ago with less invasive methods. Those scientists simply didn’t become TV celebs, and if you're not on TV, that means most of this country doesn't know who you are.
2. “This is the first research of its kind”, "pioneering new research that's never been done before", "the first of its kind in history". The number of times this is said in the course of just one interview and at least once in every interview shows that OCEARCH knows how important it is to mesmerize the public. And I have to disagree with these statements on multiple levels. Position tracking of white sharks has been taking place for a very long time. If OCEARCH is referring to this specific method of hauling the shark and attaching SPOT tags I also have to disagree since this method was taken from another scientist, whom, whether I agree with his methods or not, is the one who pioneered that method. OCEARCH took his method and ran. Financially it seems to have been a brilliant move. Ralph Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee had this to say “The record should be clear that any such study by Fischer and his group, is not the first study for this topic."
3. “We can’t put policy in place to protect these sharks if we don’t have this data.” Well, I would like to clarify some things. Policies are in place. They just aren’t enforced well. When existing data is ignored by the powers that be (those who set fishing restrictions, etc.), what assurance is there that more data will change that? Furthermore, this particular organization has been conducting its work for the better part of a decade. In their defense I’d like someone to please list policy changes that have been made as a result of their work thus far. Please list any bills or proposals this organization has started or authored in an attempt to further the conservation of these sharks. The irony that really bothers me is that marine sanctuaries such as the Gulf of the Farralones National Marine Sanctuary has policies in place that prohibit people from even approaching these sharks up to a certain distance for "the good of the shark"...yet this policy was thrown out the window when the OCEARCH guys came into town. These sharks that were so strictly protected that you couldn't approach them were suddenly allowed to be "wrangled". OCEARCH has been collecting data for 7 years. Which year are they going to approach the politicians mentioned in this interview?
4. “Risking their lives to save the sharks”. The only lives in danger here are those of the sharks. These guys are operating on a boat the size of a battleship. Even the revenge seeking shark from JAWS 4 couldn't get to these guys.
5. "Scientists are really surprised by these discoveries" (referring to the tagged sharks moving on the Atlantic coast). What scientists are surprised by this? Insect scientists? If you're a white shark scientist and you're surprised that these sharks move up and down a coast, especially after more than a decade of migration tracking studies, you're a bad scientist.
6. Here's a quote justifying the killing of sharks they study. "If you have to catch 100 sharks to solve a 450-million-year-old puzzle and you know you’re going to kill three of them to save the rest is it worth it?" Well, that's a glittering generality statement made to dazzle people that don't know any better. Rather than be dazzled, stop and ask:
I just returned from a trip to Cape Cod where this organization is currently conducting its work. I interviewed many locals who attended their publicity events. The leader of the campaign referred to himself as the next Jaques Cousteau. He implied that they were the pioneers of tagging the Atlantic white shark…right in front of the tagging team that, ironically, is currently grounded due to OCEARCH’s presence in town. It's worth noting that the existing team in Cape Cod successfully tagged 30 white sharks since the sharks began making their return to the area in recent years. These guys and their work were not mentioned at all. In their present campaign, costing a reported $750,000 dollars for the month of August alone, OCEARCH has not tagged a single shark to date. I think I could come up with other ways to use that money on shark conservation.*5
If you don’t already disagree with me, pretend that you do now. Let’s say someone films a white shark giving birth for the first time. What’s going to change? So my question regarding data is, "How much is the right amount before conservative action is taken?" What is the grand goal we are striving for? After we film white sharks mating and know what their body temperature is at all hours of the day, what comes next? A brief headline then business as usual? Or will one of these events be the magic event that brings salvation to the species? What does the best data amount to when the powers that be ignore the advice based on that data anyway? What’s going to change? Despite what Fischer says, we know where they spend most of the year. We know which direction most of them head to when they leave and what their destination is. And we know they are still being caught on long lines, drowning in gill nets, being “accidentally” caught by fishermen (who smile and pose for pictures with their “accidental” trophies), and white sharks continue to be blatantly, outright hunted by poachers. Hey, I may have just solved Mr. Fischer's 450 million year puzzle; do away with what I just listed above and I'll bet money the white sharks will be just fine.
I’m afraid I made this sound like an attack on researchers. It’s not, it’s more of an invitation for us to all look at ourselves and question what motivates each of us. Remember I said that it is not the job of researchers to save the sharks? Remember the million dollar question at the beginning, “Who’s job is it to protect the shark?” I believe the answer is that it is the job of all of us. We are stewards of the earth and we need to start doing things because it’s the right thing to do and not because of financial or personal gain.
So the next time you hear about senators suddenly vetoing a shark protection bill they originally helped write, or hear about juvenile white sharks dying in fishing nets (in the same place, year after year), or watch a video of a shark that looks like its being mistreated, even if its in the name of science, question what you are seeing and hearing and make your voice heard.
Questions I leave you with to discuss openly here:
Is tagging the same as research? Why or why not?
What percent of research is conducted for personal interest rather than for the shark?
What is an example of past / existing data that aided the formation of a new and helpful conservation policy (they exist, I’m not saying they don’t).
Do you have an example from your geographic location (Australia, South Africa, Southern California, etc.) of advice provided by researchers that was ignored by those who establish and control policy?
Opinion to debate: Nature knows what it's doing. The best thing we can do is leave it alone.
The fine print that I promised:
*1 "There are scientists that have honed their skills within a multi-disciplinary course of study however; these people include those who study the science and policy management integration. This is the leading edge of pure science and management capabilities that combine a strategy for effective decisive action". - Jeff Reinhart, marine biologist.
*2 While a permit or research credential are not always required to initially conduct your work, once you have brought enough attention to yourself regulations may often follow.
*3 Instead, big game fishermen with a history of fishing shows get to team up with scientists badly in need of funding to experiment with controversial methods on a protected species while getting rich. According to "policy", anyone else doing this would be breaking the law.
*4 Why I disagree.
*5 Things to do with the money.
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!
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.