Sharks are older than dinosaurs and have barely changed through the ages. They’ve held pride of place at the pinnacle of the food chain in oceans all over the world. That is, until human greed and mismanagement started to rob the sea of some of its most magnificent of creatures. Now, sharks are perilously close to disappearing altogether.
Much maligned and fearsome in appearance, sharks very rarely attack humans (lightning strikes and bee stings are responsible for vastly more fatalities) but, ironically, now sharks have good reason to fear humans, thanks to the unchecked surge in global demand for shark products.
Picture this: a magnificent shark, hauled onto the blood-splattered deck of a fishing trawler. Next, its fins are hacked off; then the writhing, very much alive body is tossed back overboard to slowly, excruciatingly, bleed to death. The purpose of this ghoulish suffering? A gruesome grasp for machismo and status in the form of shark-fin soup, prized in many Asian societies as a status symbol and vested with dubious claims of potency.
Heartless, ruthlessly cruel, unsustainable and unethical, this ugly trade is escalating to a point where it represents the single greatest threat to shark species worldwide. Though shark fin was once considered an exclusive status symbol and the preserve of the very wealthy, economic growth in China and other parts of Asia has ushered in a new era and shark fin soup, alarmingly, has become routine at weddings, banquets and business dinners worldwide. While originally shark fin products were purchased by a few million wealthy Chinese in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the appetite for such “delicacies” has now exploded to tens of millions of people in China alone, all eager to be seen consuming these trophy foods.
Shark fins can fetch well over $100 per kilogram when exported to Asian markets, which makes shark-hunting an especially lucrative form of fishing. Fins are typically sold dockside, for cash, by mafia–like cartels. This makes it difficult to track just how many sharks are being killed. What is known, however, is that finning is increasingly taking place in marine reserves and eco-treasures such as the Galapagos Islands.
According to UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and US-based environmental pressure group WildAid, about 100 million sharks are killed each year just to supply the burgeoning thirst for shark fin soup, a slaughter akin to slaying elephants for their ivory.
There is absolutely no scientific evidence to substantiate the claimed medicinal and potency enhancements attributed to shark fins. At present, it is not at all illegal to sell shark–fin soup and, strictly speaking, finning is not banned; rather, regulations have attempted to limit the extent of the practice.
Along with fins, demand is spiralling for shark meat as well as liver and oil, which is used in health and beauty products even though botanical alternatives are available. As a consequence, populations of shark species have crashed worldwide due to overfishing, says Glenn Sant, global marine expert at conservation group Traffic.
Sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because most species grow slowly, mature late and produce few young. Once an area has been overfished, it’s extremely difficult for populations to recover. As the shark is the prime predator in a critical ecosystem — the ocean — a collapse in its numbers has the potential for a catastrophic impact on marine ecology.
At present, there are no international limits on shark harvesting and hardly any research into what might constitute sustainable catch levels. Even when sharks aren’t directly targeted, it’s estimated that 50 million sharks are captured annually as “by-catch” of commercial fishing operations, to be thrown back overboard, injured and dying.
In the interest of maximising productivity, fishing equipment is designed with maximum, albeit indiscriminate, yields in mind. Driftnets, usually set for tuna, kill a huge number of blue sharks, while long–line fishing boats, which lay out lines of baited hooks stretching for kilometres, ensure that countless sharks also end up hooked and thrashing.
Despite its innocuous image, recreational spear fishing also claims many thousands of sharks each year. In Australia in NSW, for instance, recreational spear fishing has put grey nurse sharks under extreme threat — as has recreational fishing, which results in hooks embedded in sharks’ mouths.
Australia’s northern sharks are suffering from vociferous shark fishing by our near neighbours in Australian territorial waters. This trend has been exacerbated by virtue of heavily overfished Asian shark populations.
In Australia the coastline is blessed with a wealth of fringing and off-shore reefs, which privileges us with a critical opportunity to protect this rich marine life so that it can thrive. Despite mounting evidence regarding critical threats to many shark species there are as yet no international catch limits on oceanic sharks. Nor is there much in the way of serious monitoring of fishing activity.
A lack of legislative consistency in levels of protection is putting sharks at great peril, says Dr Gilly Llewellyn, WWF Australia Project Manager of Oceans. In Australia, regulations are administered by both State and Federal governments depending on the distance out to sea and individual fisheries are given great scope for interpretation. At present, arrangements vary between states and there’s no consistency in levels of protection offered or how they are described.
As Dr Llewellyn says, “It’s pointless to have management plans if they’re not meaningful or effective.
“Labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘reserve’ can be very misleading,” she adds, explaining that most forms of regulation, even so-called ‘marine protected zones’ allow for some taking of species.” What’s urgently needed, she says, is more “no-take” zones.
Special interest groups hold huge sway, with the fishing and seafood lobbies having a powerful, often shrill voice which, for many politicians, is much more easily placated than challenged. It’s a scenario which presents a major obstacle to meaningful protection of marine species, says Dr Llewellyn: “There’s a deep sense of entitlement, the perception of fishing as a right.
“As stewards of the natural resources, governments have an obligation to strengthen the protocols of protection,” emphasises Dr Llewellyn.
Razor-sharp teeth and steely gaze aside, sharks are much more vulnerable than they look. Sharks have a low reproductive capacity and cannot replace their numbers as quickly as humans are killing them. Some species, such as the scalloped hammerhead shark, congregate in large schools and in specific locations; a fishing vessel stumbling upon these can easily wipe out a whole school.
“Many species have been hunted and fished to a point where they haven’t bounced back,” says Glenn Sant from Traffic.
Furthermore, sharks appear to have complex social structures which may be severely disrupted by fishing. Marine experts say that the fate of hammerhead sharks — which have now been placed on the World Conservation Union’s list of threatened species “globally endangered” — portends the looming crisis in store for many of the ocean’s prime predators.
What we have no way of measuring is what effect this tampering with the balance of species will have on the ocean itself. “We’re changing the structure of the ocean and have no idea about the effect until it’s too late,” says Glen Sant.
Australia’s embattled sharks
One hundred and sixty-five species of shark — just a little short of half the world total — are found in Australian waters. Yet, in NSW alone, shark catches have leapt from 60 to 300 tonnes over the past 10 years as a direct result of increasing demand for shark–fin soup, according to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.
Species considered to be critically endangered include the east-coast population of the grey nurse and speartooth sharks, while northern river sharks, west coast grey nurse populations, whale sharks and great whites are also very vulnerable.
The steep demise of these populations is overwhelmingly due to covetous and irresponsible commercial and recreational fishing practices. Isolated populations are especially vulnerable to overfishing. A prime case in point, according to WWF–Australia, is shark and other marine species inhabiting Australia’s Coral Sea, which are in danger of being wiped out by future fishing operations unless the area receives adequate and meaningful protection.
Dr Llewellyn says that shark populations such as those of the Coral Sea are particularly vulnerable to human activity as these sharks are “homebodies” and rarely move to other reef systems. Therefore, when sharks are overfished in one area, regeneration of that species, in that area, will not recur.
A great deal of shark meat is also consumed locally, says Glenn Sant, and much of it is now imported from sources that cannot be verified to be sustainable.
Some commercial fisheries have banned the landing of sharks, while others have set strict by-catch limits. However, commercial shark fishing is still extensive throughout Australia and the huge surge in demand for shark fins, coupled with lax policing, is encouraging the killing of sharks.
Shark nets and baited drum lines are used in beach meshing programs in eastern Australia. Along with South Africa, NSW and Queensland are exceptional for their practice of killing sharks so that swimmers believe they’re safer. Unlike nets in harbour swimming areas, these are designed solely to kill sharks. In reality, the risk of shark attack is quite negligible, especially when compared to the turtles, dugongs and dolphins which also get killed by these tactics.
Glistening, sleek, and so named because it lives in close family groups and cares for its young for many years, the grey nurse shark is Australia’s most endangered species.
Case study: the grey nurse
Due to their fierce appearance, grey nurse sharks (which are harmless unless provoked) were once wrongly blamed for attacks on humans. Subsequently, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, grey nurses were hunted almost to the point of extinction. Despite having been protected since 1884, watered-down regulatory regimes, low numbers and vulnerability to overfishing have seen their numbers plummet. Today recreational fishing remains the most significant threat to the grey nurse.
There are believed to be less than 500 grey nurse sharks surviving off the east coast of Australia. In the past five years, 50 of these magnificent creatures have been needlessly killed by hooks, spears and nets, according to the Department of Primary Industries.
Divers come from around the globe to admire these elegant giants at close range but, sadly, so many of the sharks they see have fishing hooks embedded into their mouths which in many cases turn septic and slowly, painfully, kill the shark. Surely, such an ignominious fate should not befall one of the most glorious creatures to have graced our planet.
Time for action
The populations of some shark species have been decimated by more than 95 per cent since the 1970s according to the Humane Society International. Many scientists and conservationists believe that because sharks are so vulnerable to fishing pressure, we should offer sharks similar protective regimes to those enjoyed by whales and dolphins.
For a start:
- Lobby politicians — in Australia, especially federal environment minister Peter Garret, whose department issues licences for shark finning — to recognise that sharks should become a conservation priority.
- Support moves to encourage the consumption of sustainable catches.
- Boycott eateries which serves shark–fin soup and let your reasons be known.
- Lobby for stronger laws and to close current loopholes. Contact:
For full-throttle awe and an inimitable adrenalin rush, it’s hard to beat watching a dorsal fin glide by at close range. So it’s hardly surprising that the magical allure of sharks has spawned countless myths and legends and, in many Oceanic societies, a culture of shark reverence. In the Solomon Islands, for instance, until very recently, the ancient practice of shark-calling was widespread (where, responding to a cue of song and rattling of leaves, sharks would duly come to shore to interact with humans).
Port Douglas-based cameraman Ben Cropp was lucky enough to have witnessed this poignant example of human–shark bonding when he travelled and filmed extensively in the Solomon Islands in the early 1980s.
“Shark-callers would look to the water and chant; then, not long afterwards, the sharks would swim in,” Cropp recalls, adding that individual sharks were known by name and were spoken of with great affection.
Solomon Islands mythology holds sharks as ancestors, and stories abound of islanders being towed back to shore by sharks after their boats capsized. In many other Pacific Island groups, sharks were venerated as protective spirits.