Saving Sharks From Finning
A serious effort to save some of the earth's oldest, largest, and most successful predators is finally under way. But it needs to move faster.
This country banned shark finning in the U.S. Atlantic in 1993 and in the Pacific in 2002. But "finning" is defined as cutting off fins at sea and deep-sixing the carcasses. Bringing sharks to shore, cutting off their fins, and then deep-sixing or landfilling the carcasses was and is something else, something perfectly legal. The original finning ban required sharkers to possess an onboard weight ratio of 95 percent dressed carcasses to 5 percent fins--a positive step, although cheating was easy. Then, in January 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, which requires sharkers to unload carcasses of all species save smooth dogfish with fins attached.
There's still cheating, but the new law has impeded shark killing. Former sharker Jon Newman of Tequesta, Florida--now a passionate shark advocate who tags sharks for Gruber's Bimini Biological Field Station--told me this: "It's not a fun fishery. When I caught big lemon sharks commercially I'd shoot them, cut them into three pieces, throw the heads overboard, and put the rest in my fish box. Now you have to bring whole sharks to the dock. How do you lift a 350-pound shark? It's a nightmare. In response, fishermen have switched from targeting large coastal pelagics to blacktips and spinners. Sandbars were the bulk of the catch, but you can't kill them anymore. Soon there might be a new quota on blacktips and spinners--another nail in the fisherman's coffin."
Now the United States needs to rise to the level of more enlightened nations like, well, Palau. In recent years commercial shark killing and trafficking have been banned in Israel, Egypt, the Maldives, and Palau. And French Polynesia now protects all sharks save shortfin makos. In 2011 progress accelerated dramatically, especially in the Pacific, where a non-binding regional ban on possession and trade in shark or ray parts was approved by the Northern Marianas, Guam, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, American Samoa, Nauru, and Hawaii. Also in 2011 Honduras, Fiji, and the Bahamas banned commercial shark killing and trade. Toronto, Canada's largest market for shark products, banned the sale of fins in October 2011, and a bill for a national ban was filed in December.
Some U.S. states do better than the feds. In 2010 Florida banned commercial fishing for lemon sharks, and this past November it protected tiger sharks and three species of hammerheads. But in federal water and on the high seas, Americans can legally kill these species.
"Through all these [Pacific and Atlantic] sanctuaries we have protected 1.8 million square miles of shark habitat," says Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, which had a major hand in making it happen.
Even at current fin prices sharks are worth far more alive than dead. Visitors to the Canary Islands spent about $22 million in 2010 to dive among sharks and rays. Eight percent ($18 million) of Palau's gross domestic product comes from shark tourism. A single reef shark in Palau has an estimated lifetime value of $1.9 million. In the Bahamas a single large shark can be worth as much as $200,000 over its natural life-span. Whale shark viewing annually brings in an estimated $47.5 million worldwide.
A better question than what are live sharks worth is what do dead ones cost. Recent studies show that large-scale removal of these apex predators is unraveling entire ecosystems--"trophic cascading," the scientists call it. For example, shark depletion in some tropical waters has led to an unnatural increase in midsized predator fish. These, in turn, deplete herbivorous grazers. The result: proliferation of algae that smothers coral reefs.
In Australia the reduction of tiger sharks has allowed dugongs and green turtles to venture into and damage wider, richer sea-grass beds and the communities they sustain. Tiger shark depletion in Hawaii has created a surfeit of their seabird prey. Seabirds are major predators of juvenile tuna, so that valuable resource has dwindled. The tuna crash, in turn, has led to an explosion in bottom fish, which will surely damage the marine ecosystem, albeit in unknown ways.
As the number of large coastal sharks has dropped along our East Coast, cownose rays, a prey item, have increased by at least 20-fold, to 40 million. Over 100 days cownose rays that summer in Chesapeake Bay consume about 840,000 metric tons of scallops, oysters, and other bivalves. In the mid-1980s, before the shark-fin boom, there was no detectable change in summer abundance of bay scallops. By 2002 harvestable bay scallops had been virtually eliminated. In 2006 cownose rays devoured 775,000 oysters planted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Piankatank River as part of an effort to restore Chesapeake Bay's dwindling shellfish.
Some scientists think the abundance of cownose rays in Chesapeake Bay has as much to do with the buffet being set out for them in the form of planted oysters as shark depopulation. But what's disturbing about the study is not debate about its conclusions; it's how managers, the shellfish industry, and the media are using those conclusions to whoop it up for increased cownose ray exploitation. It's as if we've learned nothing. "The fishery is completely unregulated," says Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International. "This animal has one pup a year, if that. I talk to people at the seafood shows who claim cownose rays are being fished sustainably. When I ask them for evidence they say they're a 'nuisance.' Well, that doesn't make them sustainable. That's how the coastal shark fishery got started. People saw declining swordfish and lots of sharks. So with no thought about biology, they promoted coastal shark fishing. That's why we have species like duskies that won't recover for a hundred years."