By Greg Stone
Sharks swim in every ocean. They are important not only for the complex ocean ecosystem, but for people everywhere who, believe it or not, benefit in some way from them.
The past decade has seen tremendous leaps forward in shark conservation around the world, but we still kill 100 million sharks a year. We have to do better. We need to adopt a global shark policy.
Humans have been fascinated with sharks since we first took to the sea thousands of years ago. Ancient cultures from Central America to Borneo to West Africa believed that sawfishes, a ray related to sharks, were benevolent or malevolent. Polynesians and Micronesians revered and respected the shark — it is engrained in their culture and appears in their art and weaponry. Even Aristotle, in his quest to discover the relationship of all living things, studied sharks.
The curiosity has always been with us, but in 1975 “Jaws” cemented sharks’ place in popular culture. It made them a part of the fixture in our minds when we think about the ocean.
“Jaws” made people think about sharks, which was good. Admittedly, it stimulated an ancient fear we have of sharks. But even with that fear, sharks fascinated us; they are not only riveting, they are incredibly important.
But there were other impacts from the film. “Jaws” brought the ocean to the public, was the first “summer blockbuster” film and inspired countless careers. I am hard-pressed to find a marine biologist that was not inspired by the charismatic Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus. When you have a generation of scientists working to study and understand sharks for several decades, a lot can be learned.
We have learned that human beings would be a lot worse off without them in our oceans. They are a key part of maintaining healthy fisheries. They are natural regulators for fish populations; without them, fisheries, which people depend on for food and livelihood, can collapse.
We have also learned they can support local tourism economies. A study published last year showed that shark tourism generates US$ 314 million in revenue every year.
And as we learned how sharks benefit people, we have also learned the astounding and damaging impact that we have on sharks. Much of the slaughter of 100 million sharks per year is driven by the lucrative market for shark fin soup and the practice of shark finning, a wasteful and inhumane fishing practice by which a shark is caught, the fins are cut off and the animal is dumped, still alive, back into the ocean.
While scientists have been working to learn more about sharks, interest from the general public has created something that all environmental causes desperately need: a constituency.
In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was a rallying cry that galvanized the American public and government to take action to stop using the pesticide DDT. Her book illuminated the devastating effect the chemical had on bird populations, from eagles to pelicans, driving them to near extinction.
In the 1980s, the growing community of advocates clamoring for the protection of marine mammals led to a global ban on whaling.
The last decade has seen the birth of a constituency for sharks. The word “sharks” is mentioned online around 50,000 times a day, according to the media and public relations nonprofit Upwell. There are many international, national, regional and local groups dedicated to conserving sharks around the world. On Twitter, there are dozens of dedicated scientists and advocates sharing their work and doing their best to put to bed the many malicious myths about sharks.
In terms of policy, we are tipping the needle. Over a dozen other nations, including Palau, the Cook Islands and Ecuador, have instituted bans on directed shark fishing. In 2011 the United States mandated that all sharks, with an exception for smooth dogfish, must be landed with their fins attached to curb shark finning. My home state of Massachusetts just joined California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington in prohibiting the sale or possession of shark fins.
China, the leading market for shark fin soup, has taken a big first step by banning the meal at state dinners. Awareness campaigns there, led by NBA star Yao Ming, have made an impact on the market, with sales of shark fins dropping 80%.
Despite these actions, we need to do more. Sharks are ocean voyagers that do not recognize borders. The only way we can effectively conserve sharks is through comprehensive global policy for shark conservation. We need a worldwide ban on the practice of shark finning.
The problem, which was highlighted by the Global Ocean Commission, is that there is weak international governance of our oceans. The fragmented nature of ocean governance is a challenge that needs to be overcome in order to protect sharks on the global scale.
Having just attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, and with the Small Island Developing States Conference coming up later this month in Samoa, the oceans are important to people at the highest level of decision-making. The question is, how can it be done? Can CITES, which regulates the global trade of endangered species, drive this policy? Can the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea be used as a mechanism through which we better protect sharks? Or does the answer lie in a new international agreement or treaty?
World leaders need to move forward and work on making this a reality. And it is up to all of us shark constituents to keep working to study, advocate and conserve sharks and make our voices heard. Without good science and a strong, informed public voice, leaders and decision-makers will not act.