A little over ten years ago while diving and filming in the South Pacific I witnessed something so beautiful and so terrible it changed the course of my life. While on a sailing expedition visiting remote South Pacific reefs I discovered the magic of diving with hundreds of sharks in wild ecosystems. While documenting marine wildlife and coral reefs, we dived islands with so many sharks the experience was eye popping. But as we sailed west, we encountered islands with few or no sharks where they should have been abundant. These islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti) are remote, lightly populated and lightly fished. What happened to all the sharks?
Sailing between islands we encountered fishing boats with longlines set for tuna but which also caught scores of sharks. Normally the crew would release these but instead they were killing sharks for the fins and discarding the rest of the fish. The concept that anyone would do this, much less a culture where sharks have been considered demigods was incomprehensible.
Entering the main commercial Port of Papeete on the island of Tahiti, we witnessed the smaller French flagged tuna vessels unloading their catch to a Taiwan - flagged mother ship. The waterline lowered steadily as the small boats unloaded yellowfin tuna. Not a single shark carcass appeared yet hundreds of shark fins drying in the hot tropical sun lined the ship's railing. I learned these shark fins were destined for Hong Kong and China as the staple in the delicacy shark fin soup.
Later we observed huge tuna ships casting 50 miles of longlines across the open sea hauling in tuna but also marine mammals, sea turtles and of course sharks. Investigation revealed that tens of millions of sharks are being killed for their fins to supply the shark fin trade to make the Asian delicacy Shark Fin Soup.
Shark finning is the process of catching the shark, slicing away the fins and discarding the shark-which can still be alive - back into the sea to bleed to death or drown. This cruel and wholly unsustainable fishing method is leading to the destruction of ocean ecosystems on which we rely. The shark meat is only worth pennies on the pound, and the urea in shark meat can spoil the more profitable catch of other species, but the fins can bring thousands of dollars to a fisherman, and at over $500 a pound, much more to the shark fin traders.
Demand for Fin is Linked to Economics
Once reserved for the emperors and nobility, this ancient Chinese delicacy had become popular with the newly affluent Chinese and the demand for the fin has escalated to epic proportions.
Shark fin soup is considered a symbol of status and is now consumed by hundreds of millions of people at weddings, banquets and other special occasions where honour is given to the recipient.
This fad among the middle classes and more affluent is akin to elephant ivory and the demand for the product is leading to overfishing of shark populations and even the poaching of protected areas for this product. We are losing the great sharks of the ocean, and like a house of cards, removing these predators is creating ecosystem collapse.
Returning to the States in 2006 we interviewed several top shark experts to make a documentary Shark Stewards of the Reef, to help expose the threats to sharks. We learned why sharks are so important to the health and the balance of the ocean. We revealed that the demand for shark fin soup is creating a gold rush for shark fin leading to the fishing practice called shark finning. Hence, Shark Stewards was born. Dedicated to protecting ocean health by saving sharks, we fight for sharks through shark fin trade bans, better fishing policy and activism.
Shark Fin Gold Rush
Sharks from every ocean are now being killed for their fins. These fins flow to Hong Kong and China for processing and then are distributed back to consumers all over the world including San Francisco. Very few shark species receive any international protection, and even the few countries with anti shark finning legislation like the US, find it difficult to regulate the laws on the high seas. Once the fins are treated, they enter the US market legally, despite the illegal or unsustainable methods of harvest. Since it is nearly impossible to determine where sharks were killed and even what species the fin is from, Shark Stewards has focused on the sale of shark fins by implementing shark fin bans like AB 376 in California. This law and others like it focus on the trade through our ports, and the sale and consumption of shark fin by our citizens. The California law goes into full effect July 1 this year, while others in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Illinois have all passed. Other laws on the East Coast, in Canada and other countries are following suit to stifle this unsustainable trade.
Fins traded in the USA are largely from outside our country, and of unknown fisheries or fishing practices, By allowing the fin trade in our country, we are partner to illegal shark finning and fishing and are aiding in the destruction of animals whose lineage hails back for hundreds of millions of years.
Despite increased regulation and enforcement, many species of sharks are suffering in US waters as well.
This year Shark Stewards helped Hammerheads get listed under the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and are working to list two species of Hammerheads under the Endangered species Act. These gentle and enigmatic sharks are among the most coveted for their fins and are being finned to extinction.
The problem is abroad, but management of the trade still exists in the USA, and there is movement towards weakening laws protecting sharks from finning.
At the time of this writing, the Department of National Marine Fisheries is considering weakening the strong anti-finning regulations we have fought for since 2000. Shark fisheries on the east coast are joining suit against our California law so that they can sell shark fins to Asia. The US is still the largest shark fin exporter outside of Asia.
Cocos Island Expedition 2011; Credit: © David McGuire/Shark Stewards
Back to the Sea
My favourite activity is still to load my camera and slip beneath the surface with the sharks. There is nothing so consummately perfect as a shark in her 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 also draw on that iconic power as a symbol to rally for the health of fish, marine mammals and all ocean life.
We are working to protect sharks here in the San Francisco Bay through Marine Protected Areas, in national policy through finning and fishing regulations and in Asia working to educate consumers and to develop Shark Sanctuaries. With the leadership and support of the Earth Island Institute we will continue the fight for sharks, and for the health of the oceans.