|Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures: Sharks Vanishing Amidst Human Myths and Brutality: Essay|
"Sharks at Risk" will encourage understanding of
"the lions and tigers of the ocean"
By Jean-Michel Cousteau
The ocean's supreme hunter cleaves through the sea in dauntless pursuit of his prey. At the top of the food chain, it fears no other species. Using its cunning and sheer relentless force, it tracks down his quarry which can only feebly resist. It has one mission and one mission only: to kill.
This predator is not, as most would immediately think, the Great White or any other shark. In fact, sharks are the prey. The true predator is Man. Humans are the butchers of an increasingly threatened population of sharks around the world. These majestic and ancient animals are the "lions and tigers of the ocean," and much like their terrestrial brethren, they are being decimated and driven to extinction by humans in a tragically wanton and wasteful manner.
Every year, humans slaughter 100 million to 200 million sharks, often simply for their fins to make shark fin soup, a delicacy eaten primarily throughout Asia. Sharks, sometimes weighing in excess of 300 pounds, are dragged aboard fishing vessels, sheared of their fins, and then thrown back bleeding into the ocean to die. This horrific practice defies reason and should make the world angry at these gruesome acts and the depletion of such a critical thread in the fabric of the ocean world.
Why do so few people care about this carnage? It's clearly a matter of human perception. Sharks are inaccurately portrayed as vicious, blood-thirsty, and man-eating killers. From the original 1975 movie "Jaws" and all its sequels to 2004's "Open Water," the film industry and the media "feeding frenzy" it has created has been a fanatical accomplice in this ongoing crime against nature.
Sharks are, unfortunately for them, not cuddly creatures. They aren't koala bears, orangutans or tiger cubs. We don't mourn their loss and we frequently applaud their demise. We don't understand them and have been infected by myths while a deadly-efficient industry has been allowed to methodically exterminate sharks for mere portions of their bodies.
That is why we are presenting "Sharks At Risk," a television special that is part of the PBS series "Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures." Our goal is to dispel the myths and correct the inaccuracies that make sharks the object of human hatred. Our message is clear. Sharks have far more to fear from us than we do of them. And, unless we curb the killing of these creatures, we will irrevocably lose one of our planet's most magnificent species.
Sharks have roamed our water planet for more than 400 million years. There are more than 350 species of sharks, but only 68 are considered potentially dangerous to humans and only four or five of those are occasionally involved in harmful situations with people. Sharks do not instinctually pursue humans as food. Most shark attacks are cases of "mistaken identity" in which sharks believe they are feeding on fish, sea lions, seals or other marine mammals.
On average, there are 100 shark "attacks" on humans each year around the world. Only about a dozen are fatal. More people die annually from bee stings, dog bites or slipping in bath tubs. For every single human fatality from an encounter with a shark, we kill 10 million of them-roughly 11,000 sharks every hour of every day.
The result is simply devastating. Over 120 species of sharks are currently listed as threatened or endangered. As apex predators, sharks play an important role in maintaining the health of the ocean's ecosystem. Serious decline in their numbers affect many other species, and there is clear evidence that some fish stocks have collapsed because of a reduction in shark numbers.
Certain species of sharks have already plummeted by as much as 80% in the past decade, and are well on their way to becoming extinct within the next 10 years. Since 1986 in the Northwest Atlantic, hammerheads have declined by 89%, white sharks by 79% and tiger sharks by 65%. All recorded shark species, with one exception, have declined by more than 50% in the past eight to 15 years. The rapid slide is even more acute in some populations, like the whitetip shark in the Gulf of Mexico, where 99% have been eradicated by humans.
Sharks simply cannot keep up with this onslaught without our protection and help. They have a slow growth rate, late maturity, low reproduction rates, and one of the longest gestation periods of any vertebrate (up to 22 months). They cannot replenish themselves as quickly as we humans are killing them.
Many sharks are caught as by-catch in fishing nets, or as a result of long-line fishing practices. But the real culprit is shark-finning to feed the appetite, mostly in Asia, for shark fin soup-which can sell for as much as $100 USD a bowl. (Ironically, some shark fins contain toxic mercury that is potentially harmful to humans.) Singapore and Hong Kong are consistently the biggest importers of Indonesian shark fins, a principal source for the product. From 1996 to 2002, Indonesia exported over 1,595 metric tons of dried shark fins to Singapore alone. But, the problem has stretched from China to Latin America to Africa and the United States.
The U.S. banned shark finning in the Atlantic in 1993. But, the practice exploded in the Pacific. In Honolulu, 2,289 sharks were landed in 1991. By 1998, the number jumped to 60,857-a 2,500% increase. Ninety-nine percent of the catch was for fins. The U.S. banned shark finning in federal waters in 2002, and barred U.S. vessels anywhere in the world and vessels of other nations in U.S. waters from possessing shark fins unless the rest of the shark's carcass is also on board. Shark meat is considered of low value to fishermen.
There are some promising signs for sharks. Shark finning bans already exist in South Africa, Brazil, Costa Rica, Canada, Namibia, Ecuador, Palau, the European Union, the U.S., and most Australian States and Territories. The first international ban on shark finning in the Atlantic, including 60 countries, was adopted in November 2004 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in response to the worldwide outcry.
Enforcement of shark finning bans will always be a problem, especially when profits remain high. A single basking shark fin, for example, can fetch $6,000 USD or more. However, some technological advancement will help. A research team in Florida has developed a genetic test to help wildlife experts crackdown on the illegal trade in sharks fins. Small bits of fish flesh can be removed from bins aboard ships or on docks to test to see whether they are protected sharks, and severe fines can be levied. A new DNA test can now identify the flesh of a Great White, which is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Sharks are still under-protected in many parts of the world ocean, and populations continue to decline at a precipitous rate. As Steven Galster, Asia Regional Director for Wild Aid expressed recently, "We still have not won… A true victory will only be when shark fin restaurants fade from the scene."
Ultimately, only public awareness and education will save the planet's sharks. Wild Aid has mounted such a campaign in Thailand and has successfully fought off local lawsuits by shark fin traders and restaurants, attempting to prevent them from publicizing the brutal slaying of sharks.
More needs to be done to destroy the myths and build appreciation for sharks as a productive species on Earth. Time is critical and we cannot ignore our responsibility to right the wrongs done to these amazing creatures. We are speaking out and hope to reach millions through "Sharks at Risk" so people can see the real beauty instead of the fabricated beast.