Report

Saving Jaws (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine article)

  • May 20, 2007
  • By Colin Woodard

Thirty years ago, Jaws terrorized cinema-goers around the world on its way to becoming the first true blockbuster action film. An entire generation learned to fear “man-eating” sharks, and there are plenty of people out there who can't swim in the ocean without hearing the film's famous daa-dum soundtrack playing in their head, the tempo quickening as the hungry predator approaches.

In actuality, however, people have never been the prey of sharks, as was so erroneously depicted in the movie. Indeed, the reverse is true. An estimated 27 to 73 million sharks a year are killed by fishermen predominantly for their fins, according to an analysis co-authored by leading shark-trade expert Shelley Clarke, Ph.D., of the University of Hawaii, and Ellen K. Pikitch, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science. Millions more are killed for meat, sport or as bycatch, when they cross paths with fishing gear intended to snare other species.

The result has been the collapse of many of the world's shark populations, with several species now in danger of extinction and troubling implications for the ecological stability of the oceans. Once a key predator of the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. South Atlantic, smalltooth sawfish have declined by 99 percent, due primarily to incidental catch. The population has been listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Program and likely needs a century to recover.

Female spiny dogfish, a diminutive shark species so common it was regarded as a nuisance by North Atlantic fishermen as recently as the early 1990s, are now so depleted that the population has produced record-low numbers of pups for nearly a decade, fished to oblivion to supply British fish-and-chip shops and German beer gardens. Even the great white shark—the dreaded star of Jaws—has been added to the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species.

“We don't use the term decimated because that means ‘reduced by one tenth,'” says Ali Hood, director of conservation for the Shark Trust in Plymouth, England. With pointed irony, she notes, “If sharks had merely been ‘decimated,' we would be much happier.”

Sharks are fish, but have a reproductive profile similar to that of large mammals: They grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over their relatively long lives. Spiny dogfish carry their pups—between two and 15, depending on the size of the mother—for nearly two years. Atlantic dusky sharks do not mature until after the age of 20, and both basking sharks and dogfish are thought to live for 50 years or more.

“These characteristics make sharks especially susceptible to overfishing, and once their populations are depleted, it can take decades or even centuries for them to recover,” says Sonja Fordham, the Brussels-based policy director of the Pew-led Shark Alliance, which is in the midst of a campaign to reform the European Union's shark-fishing policies. Dusky sharks off the east coast of the United States will take 100 to 400 years to recover, she notes, despite a decade old fishing ban.

Paradoxically, shark fishing is growing even as the animals themselves are becoming rare. Twenty years ago, sharks were generally targeted only by “big game” sport fishermen, whose numbers grew substantially after the release of Jaws. Commercial fishermen usually caught them incidentally while fishing for tuna, swordfish and other more valuable species. The meat of most sharks has a high urea content and needs careful processing to remain fresh. Even when fresh, it was generally worth only pennies a pound.

Shark fins, however, are worth a great deal. Dried fins have a ready market in Hong Kong and mainland China for use in the preparation of shark fin soup, an ancient delicacy that retails for as much as $120 a bowl. The fins, nearly tasteless themselves, provide what is said to be a gelatinous texture to the soup, allegedly improve men's sexual potency and serve as a symbol of status. By the late 1990s, Honolulu fishermen were getting $30 a pound for fins at the dock.

As China has grown more prosperous and trade barriers have been relaxed, demand for shark has increased dramatically. Shark fins can now sell for more than $300 a pound, and a single fin from the particularly favored Atlantic basking shark once fetched $10,000. In 2002, researcher Shelley Clarke estimated the global shark fin trade to be increasing by 5 percent a year.

With few tuna and cod left to catch in many regions, fishermen have been targeting sharks instead. With all the value concentrated in the fins and limited space aboard their vessels, there's considerable incentive to slice off the sharks' fins and throw the rest of the carcass overboard, in some cases while the animal is still alive. This wasteful and cruel practice, called finning, is still perfectly legal in much of the world. Even where it is regulated, there are often loopholes that allow fishermen to fin two or three sharks for every body they take back to port.

“Most nations don't have any shark management plans for their own coastal waters, let alone the high seas,” says J. Charles Fox, a senior officer in Pew's Environment program specializing in the protection of living marine resources. “You can count the ones that do on one hand.”

Wiping out sharks can have negative consequences for the broader community of marine life, with potentially devastating consequences for important commercial species. In March, the journal Science published the results of a study by a team led by the late Ransom A. Myers, Ph.D., of Dalhousie University that ties the collapse of the century-old North Carolina bay scallop fishery to the decline of large sharks off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Most large sharks declined dramatically since the early 1970s, while populations of the rays they preyed upon seem to have increased. The rays feed on bay scallops and appear to have depleted them. (Myers, a tireless proponent of marine conservation, died of a brain tumor three days before the paper's publication.)

“A lot of people have asked me through the years why we should care about sharks,” says Pikitch of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, which helped support the study as part of its global shark assessment. “This study shows us what an important ecological role apex predators like sharks play. If you lose the fish at the top, you can have unforeseen impacts on other parts of the ecosystem.”

An obvious first step to protect sharks and, by extension, the integrity of marine ecosystems is to start managing the quantity caught and methods by which people catch them. While the United States and Australia have shark management plans that include prohibitions on finning, most of the rest of the world does not. Fox says that most other large shark-fishing nations like Indonesia, China and Japan are thought to be relatively impervious to outside pressure on the issue, at least in the near term.

“At the Trusts, we were well aware of the crisis facing sharks, and we wanted to see what would be the most costeffective and fruitful course of action to strengthen protections for these animals,” Fox says.

“We decided to focus first on the E.U., because many of their member states had shown an interest in examining their shark management practices, including finning.”

European shark fisheries are generally unregulated, with just a few limits on the numbers of sharks caught and type of gear used. Although white and basking sharks were recently protected due to international obligations, the vast majority of European shark, skate and ray species are not subject to fishing limits.

In 2003, the E.U. passed a regulation that prohibited shark-finning in its waters and by E.U. vessels worldwide, and also required E.U. fishermen to bring to land the sharks' bodies, not just their fins. Unfortunately, the rules contain loopholes that enable fishermen to fin two or three sharks for each one that they dock.

“Before you authorize a fishery, ideally you should assess the population and figure out what catch levels and methods are sustainable, and yet shark fisheries are regularly hampered by lack of data,” says Fordham of the Shark Alliance. “But finning regulations are really a no-brainer, something you don't need any more information to enact.”

To encourage reforms, in March 2006, Pew created the Shark Alliance, a coalition of European sharkconservation, scientific, diving and fishing organizations, most of which are relatively small and nationally focused.

(Pew's partners contributing to the alliance include the Oak Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation and the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation.)

Alliance members conduct media briefings and public information campaigns from the United Kingdom to Italy, and coalition members hold meetings with government officials and members of the European Parliament in an effort to get finning and management reforms on policy makers' agendas.

Meanwhile, the Lenfest Ocean Program has supported a series of scientific workshops where researchers explored key issues, including the best methods for fishery wardens to ensure that no shark-finning is taking place and an assessment of the status of open-ocean sharks, which resulted in several being added to the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species.

“Working as a coalition has helped enormously,” says Eleonora de Sabata, coordinator of the Rome-based Med-Sharks Project, one of the now 30 members of the Shark Alliance. “Many organizations are small and dominated by scientists, so we know the facts, but we often don't have the political background or the strategic vision to know when key meetings are taking place and how to time our actions so the message is heard.”

“We've been used to having to be jacks-of-all-trades, but now we're able to learn and benefit from specialists within the alliance,” says Hood of the Shark Trust, one of the founding members of the coalition, which brought considerable experience in engaging the public in shark issues. “We've been able to achieve far larger goals that we could not have achieved without this framework.”

The challenges are considerable, not least of which is the sharks' reputation as vicious monsters. Many people fear even the docile nurse shark, which eat shrimp, squid and urchins (and are known to enjoy belly rubs from divers who know how to handle them), or the whale shark, which at more than 40 feet long are the world's largest fish but dine exclusively on fish eggs and plankton.

Some large sharks can be dangerous, but “attacks” are extremely rare: generally between 50 and 70 a year worldwide, with four to seven fatalities, according to statistics compiled by the International Shark Attack File. Residents of the coastal United States, it adds, are many times more likely to be killed by the drive to the beach.

“They still have an image problem, particularly with the generation that is old enough to have seen Jaws and is quite hard to persuade,” says the Pew project director of the Shark Alliance, Uta Bellion, who is based in Amsterdam. “The younger generation has a completely different attitude. As soon as you explain the issues surrounding sharks—the reproductive facts and so forth—they understand it very quickly and show a lot of respect and care. It's a complete conversion.”

Another major obstacle: the hard realities of the fishing industry in Spain, by far the largest shark-fishing nation on the continent and the fourth biggest in the world.

Spain has a history of long-distance fishing. In the 1500s, entire fleets of fishing vessels were sailing across the Atlantic to work the cod banks of Newfoundland. By the 1970s, Spain had the second-largest fishing fleet in the world after the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the country had few fisheries within its own territorial waters.

Then it was hit with two calamities. Starting in 1977, nations moved to protect their fisheries resources from overfishing by foreign fleets. When countries extended their exclusive economic territory to 200 miles offshore, Spain's fishermen lost access to many productive grounds, including most of the Newfoundland banks. Although the fleet shrank, it was still too large for the other Western European nations, which insisted it be further slashed before they would allow Spain to join the E.U. in 1986.

“When Spain joined the E.U., there were 150,000 fishermen. Now there are only 50,000, and our government sees its role as defending the interests of the fishing industry, not the fish resources,” says Xavier Pastor, Madrid-based European director of the international group Oceana, another Shark Alliance member. “Still, the fleet is completely disproportionate to the fisheries resources of Spain, so these boats have to go all over the world trying to find fish and depleting stock after stock.”

The public and media, he adds, still hold the notion that there are plenty of fish in the sea and that the only issue at hand is who will catch them, all of which makes arguing for improved management extremely difficult.

Despite Spanish opposition, the alliance's efforts to raise the visibility of the issue have led to early successes. Last October, the European Parliament rejected a Spanish proposal to advise European fisheries ministers to further weaken finning regulations. Instead, representatives passed a measure that urges authorities to strengthen the finning ban and provide a shark management plan by mid-2007.

One issue has to do with the standards by which authorities determine if finning is taking place. Even when they bring the whole shark to market, some fishermen prefer to remove and separately store the fins at sea, arguing that carcasses are then more efficient to stow. To ensure no finning takes place, the United States requires a fin-to-body ratio of no more than 5 percent of dressed weight, which is regarded by scientists as a generous, upper limit for that fishery. (The term refers to a fish's weight without the guts, head and fins.) The E.U. standard is 5 percent of the whole weight, the equivalent of about 12 percent of dressed weight, potentially allowing fishermen to legally carry two to three times more fins than could be accounted for by the carcasses in their vessel's hold.

“This vote was a crucial test of the campaign's legitimacy in Europe,” says Pew's Bellion. “I think we're well on the way to strengthening the finning ban.”

In December, E.U. member states approved, without objection, a measure to protect spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, setting the stage for a limit in international trade. The European recommendation will need the support of two-thirds of the signatories of the convention when it holds its biannual meeting this June in The Hague, Netherlands.

 

Shark success in Europe might augur success elsewhere.

 

“Europe will be pushing this forward,” says Bellion, “but a lot will depend on whether the U.S. and Canada, relatively progressive countries in terms of shark management, decide to support the measure.”

There have also been encouraging signs that the E.U. may create management plans for their shark populations, a principal goal of the alliance. In March, E.U. fisheries commissioner Joe Borg committed to adopting an action plan on the issue, although without a firm timeline.

Borg has also said that the European Commission intends to propose new shark protection measures in international forums, such as tuna commissions, which have neglected the sharks that are increasingly taken in the fisheries they regulate.

If Europe does get its shark policies in order, it may help increase pressure on other countries to take action. “The E.U. is a key player, but there are scores of other nations with unsustainable shark fisheries,” says Fox of the Pew Trusts. “Shark populations are in peril worldwide, and we're exploring how to advance this work beyond Europe.”