Sharks: Friends not foes!

Blog by Ria Sen, member of the IUCN Comission on Education and Communication

Shark dive briefings to our diving team in Koh Tao

AWARE Week 2018, globally hosted by Project AWARE and PADI, concluded with a bang last week. This worldwide-first had a focus on shark conservation and awareness-raising activities, with an AWARE Shark Conservation Specialty course on offer. In this blog, I will share a little more about my personal experience of enrolling in this course, together with a few salient takeaways on how anyone can act to protect sharks. This Specialty was provided by Eco Koh Tao, an organisation reputed for their stewardship in marine conservation and eco-diving on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand.

The objective of the specialty course is to better understand the innate value of sharks for healthy and well-functioning marine ecosystems and economies. It is not a surprise to learn that shark populations are in rapid decline globally. A numerical estimate by the Marine Policy scientific journal estimates that 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year. This is especially concerning, as these creatures are ‘apex predators’ – at the top of the food chain – with vital functions for maintaining ecosystem balances as they feed on a range of different marine creatures. They also remove sick, diseased and injured animals in the waters.

Given the typically longer gestation periods (breeding patterns being in every second or third year), and the long time to reach sexual maturity, the ability for sharks to naturally recover their dwindling numbers is well-nigh impossible. These are some of the factors which make sharks particularly vulnerable to the threat of overfishing. An authority on the status of the world’s animal species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), estimates that 25% of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, as classed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

Shark liver oil is extracted and sold for its ‘health benefits’, its jaws and teeth have been used to create souvenirs, and its skin is used to make ‘shark leather’ products. Sharks are hunted for their meat which is used in a variety of cuisines across the world, the most notorious of which is shark fin soup that utilises the shark’s fin in its preparation. In some eateries, shark meat is colloquially referred by different names, such as ‘flake’, and may even be served in fish and chip joints. However, those eating shark meat may not be aware of its high toxicity – particularly high levels of heavy metals such as mercury. This mercurial accumulation arises from the creatures that sharks feed on in the waters, which often may ingest environmental pollutants.

Shark finning is the biggest contributor to the decline of shark populations globally. The fins are sawn off usually while the shark is alive, and the rest of its body tossed overboard into the water – leaving this otherwise majestic creature, to sink and drown. Finning and fishing have been banned by 70 regional bodies and countries, though is still not illegal globally. This is an ocean governance challenge, as finning happens on waters where monitoring and regulations are inadequately enforced.

Another factor which contributes to shark numbers declining is being bycatch: captured and killed inadvertently by fishers. This bycatch is usually dumped overboard, irrespective of whether the creature is alive or dead. It’s estimated that tens of millions of sharks are killed as bycatch every year. Discarded bycatch is typically unaccounted for in fishery records, including such shark deaths. The reduction in habitat for shark species due to rapid and unplanned coastal development, coral reef destruction and mangrove devastation is compounding the above factors, ultimately damaging shark habitats and nurseries. In this respect, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are critical to protect shark habitats and nurseries. MPAs covering migratory shark routes would be of much value.

At a wider governance-level, there are certain mechanisms and bodies in place to protect sharks, in addition to finning and shark fishing bans. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, called CITES, deserves particular mention, which regulates international trade in threatened plant and animal species. CITES protection is enlisted in two appendices, with Appendix I banning all commercial trade in that species, and Appendix II monitoring trade with provisions for action to restrict if need be. High penalties can be levied on parties found smuggling CITES-listed animals or plants across international borders. Only three species of sharks are enlisted in CITES Appendix II at the moment. In addition, having functioning monitoring and regulation mechanisms to report illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or IUU, is crucial for protecting shark populations.

If shark fishers and traders knew the value of live sharks they may think twice before killing them. Sharks can be a great revenue generator as they make for dive tourism attractions. For example, in the Pacific, conservative calculations recently demonstrated that shark diving contributed US$ 42.2 million to the economy of Fiji, a sum composed of revenues generated by the industry combined with the taxes paid by shark divers to the government. In another telling example from the Caribbean, the shark diving industry in the Bahamas – the shark diving capital of the world – contributes approximately US$ 113.8 million annually to the economy in direct and value-added expenditures. Contrast these staggering estimates with the cost a single dead shark fetches in the market – about US$ 50 to US$ 60 only. Responsible and ethical dive tourism can serve to create ‘shark advocates’, who better understand the value of these majestic creatures alive.

In popular culture sharks are often presented as brutal killers ­– Jaws which depicted brutal shark attacks to cinema goers in 1975, and more recently, the 2018-released Meg movie was about a prehistoric shark species (the Megdalon) going on a killing spree, eating everything in its way. Of course, these cinematic depictions ended with the shark(s) being massacred by brave human beings restoring order to the world. Nothing can be further from the truth: If anything, humans killing sharks indiscriminately is bringing intense disorder to the ecosystem. In reality, shark attacks worldwide average about 77 per year, with only around 10 of these being unprovoked.

You don’t need to have undertaken a course to support shark conservation. Simple steps suffice, and every effort counts. There are global campaigns ongoing to save sharks and joining one in your locale is almost certainly possible. Often these contributions depend on time and in-kind support. Being a responsible tourist and diver visiting marine areas can go a long way in protecting marine habitats which are home to sharks. Being diligent about paying fees (if levied) for Marine Protected Area maintenance is a way you can support better management of these ecologically diverse and valuable sites.

Misperception fuels fear. Dispelling wrongful perceptions based on stereotypes is helpful in changing how people view sharks. Often, the terror stems from poorly researched news reports or other media coverage. Sharing and cross-posting credible reports on social media platforms, and being critical of others which do not have a basis in science can help dispel myths. Likewise, lifestyle choices are important, such as choosing sustainable seafood options and being mindful of eco-labels on consumer products. And obviously, choosing to not eat shark fin soup or buy shark-based products, such as souvenirs, is vital.

For divers, responsible shark interaction is a must. This is premised on respect for these creatures – the water is their home and divers are temporary visitors. Most important is to avoid any kind of physical contact and main adequate distance. Riding any marine animal, let alone a shark, is not acceptable in any circumstance, with such an act even being punishable by law for some species. If a shark dive is being undertaken, the credentials and ethical quality of the dive centre should be verified by divers prior to signing up. Professional, highly experienced staff from the dive centre guide diving groups and should also provide adequate safety and educational briefings prior to, and after, dives. At Eco Koh Tao, when our small team of divers undertook two shark dives, the objectives, safety procedures and any contingencies were discussed adequately. enhanced. I will continue to support these majestic creatures, one dive at a time.

Click here to read Ria's blog leading up to AWARE Week.

Click here to read Ria's follow-up article on AWARE Week and marine pollution

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