A little more than 10 years ago, while diving and filming in the South Pacific, I witnessed something so beautiful and so terrible that it changed the course of my life. First, the beautiful: During my dives to remote reefs in the Central Pacific, I discovered the magic of swimming with hundreds of sharks.
Now, the terrible: As we sailed west, we encountered reefs with few or no sharks, even in places where these predatory fish should have been abundant. The reefs, off the islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia, are remote, lightly populated, and lightly fished. What happened to all the sharks?
As we sailed between islands we encountered fishing boats with longlines set for tuna. These lines also inadvertently trap scores of sharks. Fifteen or 20 years earlier, the crew would release the sharks; now, they were killing the sharks for their fins. Our local guide explained the Chinese paid good money for shark fins but the meat was not marketable. Thus, the fishermen were catching sharks, cutting the fins off, and discarding the still living shark overboard. That anyone would do this – much less a culture where sharks have been considered demigods – was incomprehensible. I couldn’t believe it until I saw the aftermath. Missing sharks, degraded reef systems, and shark carcasses rolling finless at the bottom of the exterior reef. I had to learn more about this shark finning.
Entering Tahiti’s main commercial port, Papeete, we witnessed the smaller French-flagged tuna vessels unloading their catch to a Taiwanese-flagged mother ship. The ship’s waterline lowered steadily as the small boats unloaded yellowfin tuna. Not a single shark carcass appeared, yet hundreds of fins were drying on the Taiwanese ship’s railing. We spoke to a longshoreman and learned that the shark fins were destined for Hong Kong and China, where they are used to make shark fin soup. That was my first direct encounter with shark finning – a cruel and wholly unsustainable practice in which fishermen catch sharks, cut off their fins, and then throw the mutilated fish back in the sea to die.
Shark fin soup is a traditional Chinese delicacy – a special dish reserved for important occasions like weddings. Fishermen can sell the fins for more than $400 a pound. Once reserved for the nobility, this ancient dish has become popular with the newly affluent Chinese, and demand for the fins has skyrocketed. Fins processed in China and Hong Kong are also distributed to consumers all over the world, including the United States, which has one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia.
Today, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a third of all open ocean sharks are threatened by extinction, largely because of finning. The disappearance of sharks is setting off the collapse of ocean ecosystems as the loss of these apex predators disturbs the marine food web.
Returning to the United States in 2006, our team interviewed several top shark experts and made a documentary, Shark Stewards of the Reef, to help expose the threats to sharks and highlight how they are crucial to the health of our oceans. That film led to the birth of Shark Stewards, an Earth Island-sponsored organization dedicated to protecting ocean health by saving sharks.
Few international protections
While investigating the shark fin trade in Hong Kong this summer, I did some diving and filming on the south Cambodia coastline and in a group of islands of the Semporna region of Malaysian Borneo. The Semporna islands, which are at the apex of the Coral Triangle, represent some of the world’s most diverse and intact shark and fish populations, and have healthy coral ecosystems. However, in both countries shark fin soup is on the menu of the finer Chinese restaurants. Dried shark fins are on display at the dried sea food stores alongside sea horses and sea cucumbers. In the fish markets, unborn baby sharks are found for sale. Manta ray gills are becoming the new shark fin. During one dive, we even felt the blasts from dynamite fishing nearby and saw the scars of blasted coral in outlying islands.
Shark Stewards is building coalitions in these regions to support marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries. We are creating an alliance to support the first shark sanctuary in Southeast Asia. Driven largely by dive tourism, this dream is becoming a reality, and none too soon.
Sharks are in deep trouble. Very few shark species receive international protection. The countries where finning is illegal, like the US, can’t enforce their laws on the high seas. Besides, once the fins are processed, they are able to enter the US legally and are traded globally. By allowing shark fin trade in our country, we are complicit in a practice that is causing the destruction of animals whose lineage goes back hundreds of millions of years.
Since it is nearly impossible to determine where sharks were killed and even what species the fin is from, Shark Stewards has focused on stemming the sale of shark fins by helping implement shark fin bans like California’s AB 376. The law, which went into effect in July, bans the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins. Similar bans are in place in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. The momentum continues. Just this summer we helped pass another ban in Massachusetts, and other states like Florida and Texas are pending.
Trade bans are important because our DNA testing indicates that endangered shark species are sold here in the US. Additionally, it is highly likely that shark fins legally imported and re-exported from countries like Costa Rica and Mexico are fins from illegally harvested sharks. This year we also had to help fend off harmful language added by the National Marine Fisheries Service amending the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in January 2011. This new language proposed to preempt existing shark fin laws in US states and territories. If passed, this would undermine the last 10 years of our efforts to protect sharks.
here are other glimmers of hope. For the first time the shark fin trade in Hong Kong has dropped. Thanks to pressure from Shark Stewards and our partners, the Chinese are becoming aware that shark finning is wrong and the trade is harming the ocean. The Hong Kong government has joined the Chinese government in officially dropping shark fin soup for the menu of government functions.
We are also building a Pacific Shark Alliance to promote and support shark sanctuaries across the Pacific Ocean. At home in the US, we are working to protect sharks and their habitat in the San Francisco Bay and other National Marine Protected Areas. As the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America, the San Francisco Bay is one of the most important shark nurseries. Protecting critical habitat and nursery areas as well as mature and pregnant females can help take the strain off the shark population that is being fished in national and international waters.
Back to the sea
Recently I joined Mexican government fisheries officials diving with great white sharks at Guadalupe Island. We discussed the impact of gill nets on sharks, particularly protected great whites, which are still being killed. The officials were amazed when they heard that dive tourism in Baja is bringing $3 million in revenue each year. Sharks are more valuable alive than dead, both to the marine ecosystem and to local economies.
Even though the Shark Stewards campaigning is hugely rewarding, my favorite activity is still to load my camera and slip beneath the surface of the ocean and swim with sharks.
To me, there is nothing so perfect as a shark in its element. Power, grace, and a fierce sense of survival have inspired countless Indigenous people to use the shark as their god or icon. We can draw on that iconic power as a symbol for the ocean’s wonderful wildness. The shark can become an emblem either for the sickness, or the health, of all ocean life. Which it becomes is up to us.
Top shark image via dive.in