Saving Sharks (Spring 2011 Trust Magazine Article)

Source Organization: Pew Environment Group

Author: Doug Struck


08/05/2011 - The shark came, a shadow from the depths. It circled scuba diver Chang Chin with slow, sinuous purpose. In a moment, two, three, then four of the powerful predators, each weighing hundreds of pounds, were circling closer and closer to Chin as he worked on the deck of a sunken old freighter 40 feet underwater.

Eight other scuba divers, arrayed along the ship’s barnacled railing, watched as if Romans at the Colosseum. Chin opened a homemade metal box and withdrew a grouper carcass on a prong. In an instant, the sharks barreled through the ring of spectators, lunging toward Chin’s bait. They pushed between his legs and under his armored arm. A writhing ball of fins and teeth—more than a dozen sharks—tore at the fish offered up by the diver.

“It was amazing,” said Debbie Varela, 27, a physician from New York City, as she emerged from the clear Bahamian waters. “I’ve been in love with sharks since I was a kid. I was just mesmerized. This has been one of the most spectacular dives I’ve ever done.”

Varela is Exhibit A in the case being made by the Pew Global Shark Conservation Campaign. The Pew Environment Group’s campaigners are working around the world to show that sharks are worth more alive than dead.

“We can’t sit by while a species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs is being pushed into oblivion,” said Matt Rand, head of the campaign, based in Washington, DC. “They have earned a fierce reputation. In reality, it is sharks that are the hunted.”

The need, Rand said, is urgent. Sharks are disappearing quickly from the oceans, the victims of both accidental catch and deliberate hunting. They are snagged along with tuna and swordfish as commercial fishermen lay out miles and miles of baited hooks, systematically emptying the depths. They are stalked by sportsmen in fishing tournaments, and shot with rifles by others who see them as dangerous.

But perhaps the biggest threat to sharks is soup. Dried-seafood specialty stores in Hong Kong and other Asian cities display thousands of shark fins, graded by species and size, and sold to restaurants as the crowning ingredient of shark fin soup.

Especially in China, the soup is a sign of luxury on menus and opulence at weddings and banquets: it can cost $100 a bowl. For that status, millions of sharks are caught, their dorsal and pectoral fins sliced off and—in many cases—the animals are dumped back in to the sea. The shark, no longer able to swim, suffocates as it sinks or slowly bleeds to death.

“By keeping only the fins, a single vessel can kill an extraordinary number of sharks on a single trip,” a new Pew report notes. “For example, in 2002, the U.S. vessel King Diamond II was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Guatemala with 32 tons of fins on board—estimated to represent 30,000 sharks.”

Finning is illegal in Europe, the United States and some other countries, but it still takes place in international waters, where no controls are in place, as well as in the domestic waters of many countries that have no protection for sharks. Numbers are elusive, but a 2006 study based on fin sales in Hong Kong estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. The reported commercial catch—for fins, meat, cartilage and skin—is estimated at up to 73 million sharks a year, which does not include many that are simply discarded.

“The main reason sharks are killed is for their fins,” said Demian Chapman, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University in New York, a shark expert who has worked with Pew. “The problem boils down to this big demand for shark fins, and the sharks just cannot replenish themselves fast enough to keep up with demand.”

Sharks are accustomed to being at the top of the oceanic food chain. Like many top predators, they produce very few offspring and mature slowly, avoiding competition that would deplete their prey. However, this slow reproduction rate cannot withstand the ravages of men with nets and knives.

The result has been a catastrophic decline in shark populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps the respected “Red List” of endangered species, estimates that 30 percent of shark and ray species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. That includes iconic species such as great whites, makos and whale sharks, familiar figures to millions of film and television viewers. The status of nearly half the shark species is unknown.

“A lot of people don’t realize that sharks are endangered. We have to get across the message that in order to save the oceans, you have to save sharks and other top predators,” said Debbie Salamone, 45, who works in Orlando for the Pew Environment Group. She knows: She was severely bitten on the foot by a shark off the Florida coast in 2004.

For the Pew campaigners, this is somewhat unusual work. Rand and his colleagues walk the halls of Congress in suits, educating lawmakers about sharks. Then they cross the globe and slip into sulu skirts and bula shirts to meet with officials in Fiji for the same purpose.

Much of their work seems unglamorous. In meetings, they toil over arcane language of fishing treaties and rules, at settings ranging from the United Nations to regional fishery management organizations.

But they have successes. In 2009, for example, they heard the Pacific island nation of Palau was thinking of starting a shark fishing industry in its waters, an area the size of Portugal. Rand spent 10 days there, finally wrangling a meeting with the president in a local café.

Dressed appropriately in his neatest polo shirt, Rand gave President Johnson Toribiong his best “elevator pitch,” a short summary of the need to protect sharks. The president, a fisherman himself, listened politely. A few months later, Rand got a call: Toribiong was in New York and wanted Rand’s help drafting a speech for the United Nations, announcing establishment of the world’s first national shark sanctuary.

Five months later, Honduras declared a moratorium on shark fishing, and weeks after that, the Maldives followed suit with a sanctuary announcement. Hawaii and Guam have outlawed possession of shark fins, and the Northern Mariana Islands mandates jail or fines for trading in fins. Last November, a group of 48 tuna-fishing nations prohibited harvesting whitetip and seven species of hammerhead sharks. In January of this year, President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Shark Conservation Act, closing loopholes in the ban on finning. And in June, Honduras built upon its moratorium by declaring its national waters a shark sanctuary.

“These are significant accomplishments,” Rand said. “The idea is to get countries to protect their own sharks and also become international leaders in protection.”

The Pew campaigners are cautiously tiptoeing toward China. Reducing the Chinese market for fin soup would be “the silver bullet” in the shark fin trade, Rand said. But he acknowledges the difficulties of changing cultural habits; the consumption of shark fin soup is rising as China gains affluence. It will be as tough as the anti-smoking campaign has been in America, he predicted.

The Bahamas came onto Pew’s radar for a positive reason: The waters around the islands still have a lot of sharks. In 1991, the government considered allowing long-line commercial fishing in Bahamian waters. The public, alarmed at the threat to what it sees as its national treasure, took to the streets in protest and won a reversal. Instead, the government put a strict prohibition on long-line fishing.

The two-decade ban has bequeathed the Bahamas an abundance of sharks. And that has brought about an abundance of diving enthusiasts.

“We’ve got a lot of people coming to the Bahamas for the sharks, dropping a couple thousand dollars a person in the local economy, creating lots of jobs, not only with me, but with taxi people, hotels and restaurants,” said Stuart Cove, whose staff takes tourists underwater to see reef sharks off Nassau. Cove, 52, is a sandy-haired Bahamian who learned “shark wrangling” when he was hired on to the underwater crew of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only in 1980. Since then, he has worked on dozens of other underwater films, learning that sharks are not as fearsome as his mother told him when he was growing up. With that revelation and pay from his film work, he eventually built a bustling business.

“We have about 60,000 people come through here diving and snorkeling every year,” he said after Chin returned with the boatload of happy scuba divers. “Once they hit the water and see how beautiful and graceful and magnificent these creatures are, they change from ‘the only good shark is a dead shark’ to becoming shark ambassadors.”

But there are rumblings of threats to this treasure. More than 8,000 Chinese workers are to be brought to the Bahamas to help build resorts and a sports facility being financed by the Chinese government, and one islander was widely reported to have made moves to start commercial finning of sharks. Cove estimates that 40 to 60 “regular” sharks draw his customers and that they could be wiped out in days.

It seemed to Pew an opportune time to encourage the government to further protect the Bahamas’ sharks by banning all commercial trade in sharks and fins. The Bahamas enacted the ban in July of this year.

“Pew initially did a lot of homework. They came in, they met with people, very silently moved around and got people’s views on exactly what we thought of doing a campaign like this,” said Eleanor Phillips, who heads the Nassau office of the Nature Conservancy. “That was the right approach, not coming in here and saying ‘You guys should do this.’ No strong-arming.”

Instead, Pew encouraged the Bahamas National Trust, a nonprofit agency created by parliament and tasked with managing the country’s 27 land and sea national parks, to take the lead.

Eric Carey, executive director of the trust, is optimistic they will succeed. “Shark tourism” brings about $79 million to the Bahamas each year, he said, and there is no vested opposition: Bahamans don’t traditionally eat shark and generally don’t fish it. According to Carey, the prospect of success puts conservationists in an unaccustomed role.

“Those of us who work in this field are often fighting from behind. We normally try to put in place conservation measures for a species after there’s very little of it left, when we are almost to the point of extinction.

“In this case, we have this incredible opportunity to show global leadership and do it right. For the first time in a very long time, we can actually protect something while it’s still healthy and alive,” he said.

Pew, he said, brought international reach and a track record of success on environmental campaigns. “They have lots of good information, provide good support and have very good staff,” Carey said. “It makes a difference.”

Pew research grants also help fund the science plumbing the ecological value of sharks. Samuel Gruber, a marine scientist, saw that value years ago. When lymphatic cancer made an abrupt reversal 21 years ago and gave him an unexpected new chapter in life, “Doc” Gruber decided to pursue his long-held interest in sharks.

He opened the Bimini Biological Field Station, a colorful, low-slung building teeming with college students, volunteers and marine biology researchers, all devoted to studying sharks.

On a recent day—his 73rd birthday—Gruber gunned a 75-hp outboard motor toward a tidal mangrove stand in north Bimini, the closest Bahamian island to the United States. He hopped from the boat into thigh-high water, and plunged in among the thick mangrove roots and through a stinging ambush of “no-see-ums”—biting midges—as doctoral student Kristine Stump and volunteer Tyler Clavelle swished along behind him with armfuls of equipment.

Deep in the grove, Gruber reached into a sack of barracuda pieces. Here, safe among the roots and shallow waters, juvenile lemon sharks hide and grow. He threw fish to a two-foot shark and smacked the water. Before long, six small sharks were darting among the legs of the researchers, seizing fish held gingerly in Gruber’s fingers.

“Uh-uh, don’t be biting me now,” Gruber scolded a shark. “Watch out, watch out.”

He netted one shark, deftly grabbed it mid-body, and clutched it as Stump injected a microchip under its dorsal fin to give the shark its own 10-digit tracking number. Even at six pounds, the muscular shark whipped back and forth in Gruber’s tight grip, chomping through a tough mangrove branch that came near its mouth.

Gruber’s students handle hundreds of small sharks yearly, and not all encounters are smooth. Earlier in the day, Christopher “CJ” Brooks, a student from Great Britain, returned from a water pen where he is studying small sharks, blood streaming down his arm from three nasty gashes on his wrist.

“My project is to look at the effects of predators on juvenile sharks,” Brooks, 22, explained while Gruber stanched and bandaged the wounds. He deadpanned, “Apparently, it makes them mad.”

Gruber’s swimsuit-and-sandals crew are self-described “shark people—the kind of people who swim toward a shark instead away from it,” said Jim Barley, who co-manages the shark lab with Emily Marcus, both 27, who got hooked on the Bimini work in college.

They hope people are beginning to understand what sharks mean to the environment. As the top predators, sharks keep order in their underwater neighborhoods. A group of California researchers writing in the journal Science in 2007 concluded that the decline of large sharks off the coast of North Carolina led to an explosion of their customary prey, cownose rays, which in turn ate so many bay scallops that the scallop fishery collapsed.

Gruber notes that around reefs, an absence of sharks would leave more groupers, which would eat more parrotfish, which help clean reefs of algae and keep reefs healthy. “It’s almost like a tapestry. It’s all woven together,” Gruber said. “If you were to unbalance that by pulling the main string that holds that whole thing together, you can see a cascade of some things disappearing and other things exploding.
“And when the exploding populations reach critical numbers, they have already eaten themselves out of house and home, so they die off. So you go from a stable system to an oscillating system.”

Gruber acknowledged that he is weary from losing fights to protect sharks and their habitat. Nevertheless, he allows himself optimism over the campaign and the prospect of tougher laws in the Bahamas.

“Pew is able to come to the table with a lot of resources that people like us don’t have. They are well connected and they have the money to pursue their goals single-mindedly,” he said. “That’s what’s going on right now, and it’s just like a dream come true.”

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