The Trouble With Sharks

Posted on Feb 16, 2009

_This is the first part of the series The Trouble With Sharks. I have included a handy reference page __so you can see where I pulled my information. _

Sharks. The word alone evokes powerful images: a fin slicing through dark water, a swimmer being suddenly pulled down from below, crimson stains spreading across the blue sea. Why is this? Is it because sharks are hungry human-killing machines? Or has their image been defined by media seeking to shock and terrify viewers? Ever since the classic film Jaws integrated these real animals into the template of the “monster movie”, the image of the shark as a murderous juggernaut has become iconic. Stripping away the horror-movie hype, however, reveals a fascinating and surprisingly vulnerable sea creature. It may be difficult to associate the word “vulnerable” with sharks, as this side of them is rarely seen or talked about. This great horror movie is to blame for the way that a lot of people view sharks. Everyone needs to take another look.

        Shark finning is a side of sharks that is rarely seen or talked about. Shark finning, the process of removing the sharks fins while they are still alive and then throwing them back into the water to drown, is in danger of killing off all sharks. These shark fins that are brutally taken from the shark are used primarily to make soup. Soup.  This is a crisis that is at the same level as whaling. Here is a species that is not very well understood that is being driven to extinction to make something as inconsequential as  soup. 

        I have been fascinated by sharks ever since I read Hungry Hungry Sharks as a child. I found these creatures to be one of the most complex and intriguing creatures in the world. I became a SCUBA diver at fifteen and have always continued to have an interest in sharks. This curiosity for sharks escalated when I went to commercial dive school.  I was spending about twenty hours a week underwater, working and learning, and the whole time I was trying to learn as much as possible about sharks. 1

        Currently sharks are in dire straits.  Dr. Julia Baum, who holds a PhD in marine biology, says that the populations of some breeds of sharks, including hammerheads, threshers and whites have dropped by more than ¾ in the last fifteen years (1). This means that throughout the oceans there has been a drop in overall shark populations that is leaving the ocean without predators. She goes on to say that "We estimate that all recorded shark species, with the exception of makos, have declined by more then 50% in the last 8 to 15 years" (2). So not only are the apex predators like white sharks and hammerheads declining but all sharks, from dogfish and filter feeders, are in a steep decline. It is worth noting that there has also been a sharp decline in the overall weights of marine predators. Blue sharks caught in the past five years are up to thirty kilograms lighter than ones caught 50 years earlier (Di Menna 1). If the weights of the predators is dropping so sharply it means that we are catching these animals at a younger and younger age or there no longer  exists a large enough prey supply. 

        Over the past couple years the United States of America has put into place legislation that prohibits the finning of sharks in America's waters. Amendment 2, as it is commonly known, has cut the allowable amount of shark catch by 80% and most of that quota is for use by recreational fishers, not large companies. Another important part of Amendment 2 is that all sharks must be brought to shore with fins still attached (J. Preston 1). Similar legislation adopted world wide would help the plight of sharks. The problem lies with the eastern countries like China, Japan and Thailand. These countries are the primary consumers of shark products and therefore are against any sort of world wide ban on shark finning. This is similar to the way that Japan acts towards the international bans on whaling. Japan signed the treaties begrudgingly and only after large amounts of international pressure. Of course they are not known for following the ban on whaling all the time. As Andy Coghlan, reporter for the New Scientist, reported in  the New Scientist in June 2003, Japan and Norway catch 1500 whales every year as part of research fleets (Coghlan 1). Whether this number is sustainable for the long term survivability of whales is still a much heated debate.  

Continued next Monday.