Saving Sharks From Finning
A serious effort to save some of the earth's oldest, largest, and most successful predators is finally under way. But it needs to move faster.
As is always the case when a stock is depleted, commercial fishermen targeting that stock claim the science is all wrong and that the species is in great shape. Sharkers see "lots of sharks." It's like arguing that peregrine falcons are common because you can see three or four a day over the cliffs at Montauk, New York, in October. Speaking for a large element of the industry is retired sharker Bill Goldschmitt. "So one might ask: 'Why does the eco-hysteria soap opera continue?' "he says. "Shark fiction over truth is fueled by eco-hypocrisy. . . . These [management] agencies are dominated by eco-lunatics. . . . I have, for nearly a decade, proclaimed that these agencies and these so-called 'shark experts' be held accountable for shark attacks." Similar rants are set forth in the 2010 documentary film Shark Con.
On the other hand, the general public is starting to embrace sharks the way it has long embraced large, furred mammals like cats. There's even major traffic in cloth sharks for kids. Today Jaws-inspired dead-on-the-dock shark-killing contests still happen, but the carnage is considerably less, mostly because sharks are hard to come by but also because piles of dead ones make bad PR. That's not to say kill tournaments are no longer a threat to marine ecosystems.
Thanks to a campaign sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and its allies, most notably the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation--which organizes no-kill tournaments in which sharks are tagged for research--shark killing for bragging rights is coming under increased condemnation. The Shark-Free Marina Initiative, on whose advisory board I serve, encourages marinas, restaurants, and tackle shops to register as "shark-free" (by which they pledge to prohibit sharks from being brought to their facilities). In return they get free advertising and signs featuring the acclaimed marine artwork of Guy Harvey. At this writing, 131 marinas (including 94 in this country) have signed up. Tournaments, charter captains, and individual anglers can sign on as "shark friendly," pledging to release all sharks they catch. (To learn about the shark crisis from Harvey, go to The Shark-Free Marina Initiative.)
Domestic and international management alone can't save sharks. As long as fins fetch big money, sharks will be killed legally or illegally. Their only possible salvation is a sea change in attitudes brought about by education--much like the national rejection of the millinery trade fomented by Audubon activists in the early 20th century.
Such a change is beginning, even in Asia. Seventy-eight percent of Hong Kong residents surveyed by the University of Hong Kong Social Sciences Research Centre believe that it is "very acceptable" or "acceptable" to take shark-fin soup off wedding menus. And in January 2012 Asia's oldest hotel chain, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., ceased serving shark-fin soup at group operations and at all its restaurants "in recognition of the threat facing the global shark population." It hopes to "inspire other hospitality companies to do the same."
Sharks appeared on earth well before the dinosaurs, eventually filling every available niche from that of the tiny, cigar-shaped cookie-cutter shark, which bites half-dollar-sized divots from earth's biggest animals (cetaceans) to that of the whale shark, largest of all fish, which grazes on the smallest sea creatures (plankton).
Sharks haven't changed much because they haven't had to. They've been able to adapt to every planetary catastrophe save one--human rapaciousness. Our elders by some 400 million years, sharks have proved themselves one of nature's most successful experiments. If we permanently exchange them and the natural order they maintain for temporary soup, we will likely prove ourselves one of nature's least successful experiments.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you are an ecotourist, travel to a country that protects its sharks. Urge your federal legislators to support a national ban on possession and trade in shark fins. Start or join a shark-protection campaign in your state. If you know a restaurant that offers shark-fin soup, get in the proprietor's face. If you know a marina that sponsors dead-on-the-dock shark tournaments, tell management about the Shark-Free Marina program and give them the above link, along with a copy of this article. For the latest on shark threats and protection, visit the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation page.