Another beautiful, hot and sunny day in Lhaviyani Atoll in the Maldives and I’m sailing out on the Indian Ocean for a glorious morning scuba dive and what would come to be one of the most memorable experiences of
my life. My father and I are in the capable hands of the local dive guide who has dived here for many years and isn’t unnerved easily. I’m itching to get into the water, more than usual this morning because I know here I have a good chance of seeing
my first wild shark!
We all plunge into the dream that is the underwater kingdom of the Maldives and are greeted by rich and diverse life. Green turtles, snapper and trigger fish roam above the coral while
tuna shoot past and into the deep blue. We are riding the famous Kuredu express current, flying past the stunning reef when I saw her. Gliding past us with absolute elegance and perfect effortlessness, is the grey reef shark, at least 2 metres long! Her tail
is whipped back and forth with remarkable fluidity, she is calm but definitely curious. She starts swimming directly towards me, with
her eyes locked on mine. The feeling of making eye contact with such a
prolific animal was breath-taking, as we shared a mutual interaction of curiosity towards each other. As she harmlessly moves on I have a lot to think about. I was influenced my whole life by the media and people around me that sharks were dangerous creatures
to be feared, but of course once I replaced irrational judgement with a real experience I learned the truth. I changed fears for facts and realised a shark of course is not a man-eating villain like the media wants it to be, but an animal like any other that
should be respected. Since that memorable day I became a dive guide, so I could show others the beauty of sharks and help diminish the general fear towards them. Then one day I realized, we are losing them.
most people sharks are unimportant and unappreciated. Due to the unfair bad reputation that sharks have acquired most famously from the film ‘Jaws’, sharks have almost unnoticeably reached a point where many shark species have a serious risk of
extinction in the near future. Sharks are facing the greatest crisis of their 420 million year history and are overfished to the point that their global catch peaked in 2003. Divers talk of times when reef sharks would be a common sighting on many coral reefs,
but not anymore and it is heart-breaking as a diver to see the evidence of decline of such an incredible animal with my own eyes. As time has passed, divers have come to accept that a shark sighting is not to be taken for granted and the fate of the missing
sharks is not a pretty one.
WHAT ARE THE THREATS TO SHARKS?
Overfishing, whether sharks are targeted or caught
as bycatch, is the primary threat to sharks and most shark fisheries are poorly regulated. Recent global catch records indicate that, including illegal catches, approximately 100 million sharks are caught annually, with the demand for shark fin trade the key
driver of these fisheries.
Shark finning is the harvesting of shark fins while usually,
the live carcass is discarded at sea to allow more fins to be stored on the boat. The fins are considered a delicacy and wealth status symbol in shark fin soup, a cultural treasure and established part of formal banquets dating back as far as 1368. This has
made shark finning a multi-billion dollar industry with one pound of dried shark fin retailing at around US$300. Not only is the practice of de-finning a shark and leaving it to die slowly inhumane, it is extremely wasteful and unsustainable.
Shark fin soup is not only a hazard to shark populations but also to human health. Like other large marine animals, meat from large sharks contains high levels of a compound called methylmercury which is toxic in high enough
concentrations. In this way, consumption of large marine apex predators increases the risk of mercury poisoning, which can cause memory loss, tremors and insomnia and can also have a negative effect on the growth of an unborn baby’s brain and nervous
A further impact of shark finning is the loss of sharks as a food staple for developing countries, as waters are invaded by large industrial foreign fishing vessels, threatening local sustainable fisheries.
130 countries export shark fins to Hong Kong, with Taiwan, Indonesia, UAE, Singapore and Japan contributing 50% of Hong Kong’s shark fin imports. Despite shark finning being prohibited in the United States since 2000, shark fin soup is still sold in
Deep-sea trawlers and open ocean longline fisheries catch the largest
quantity of sharks, with longline fisheries having the larger bycatch/target ratio. Sharks and rays contribute around 25% of the overall catch in U.S longline fisheries and 94% of total bycatch in commercial longline operations worldwide. Bycatch is the unintentional
catch of a non-target species and is one of the greatest threats to marine fish populations, representing a major threat to around 70% of shark and ray species. The species-specific bycatch survival rates are also rarely considered in risk assessments even
though bycatch numbers often exceed that of target catch.
Although in some fishing operations fishermen will release sharks in an attempt to reduce mortality, not all sharks receive this mercy and even still,
the post release mortality rates are not well known, but predicted to be high. A shark trapped in a deep- sea trawler surely has a very limited chance of survival, as most open ocean dwelling sharks must keep swimming to breath. Sharks use a lot of energy
catching prey and fending off competition, so after expending even more energy fighting for survival on a line, sharks are vulnerable to mortal exhaustion when released.
Some recreational fishers believe their practices have no effect on shark populations and should not be regulated however, there are more than 10 million saltwater recreational
fishers estimated to be operating along in the U.S alone and around 93% of anglers surveyed have caught at least 1 shark. This has a significant impact on threatened fish species. In 2013, 14 and 15, more sharks were killed in the U.S by recreational anglers
than by commercial fishers. Although this may be due to commercial fisheries failing to account for all shark killings, this still shows the number of sharks caught recreationally is worth considering.
sharks are popular targets of Florida’s recreational anglers and some shark fishing organisations say they are committed to conservation, enforcing catch and release policies, but again this does not factor in the number of sharks killed by the strong
physiological stress response from being fished. Due to the competitive aspect of game fishing, there are also cases of delaying release to measure the size of the catch, decreasing further the animal’s chance of survival.
Sharks have a very long wait to reach sexual maturity. For example, a whale shark can take as long as 20 years before giving birth
to up to 300 pups. The longer it takes for a shark to mature, the more likely it will be killed before reproducing. Also, 300 offspring is actually a very small amount for a fish, a ling can carry as many as 28,361,000 eggs in her ovaries. It then seems obvious
that sharks cannot be harvested as if they were like any other fish. This also makes them slow to recover after shifts in mortality rates. Most vulnerable to catch by fishing fleets are species such as blue, mako and oceanic white-tip sharks, which roam the
open oceans almost exclusively. These species are in further danger, because their relatively large size
gives their fins a higher value and due to their long distance migration patterns, are difficult to
protect, as local protection only protects a small area of its habitat.
WHY ARE SHARKS IMPORTANT?
of sharks is necessary to recovering marine ecosystems. The ecological consequences of shark population decline vary but are usually major.
Studies have suggested that reductions to the size of large shark
populations can cause top-down trophic cascades, where the reduction of a predator population leads to a change in the abundance of prey populations, through direct and indirect effects. The behaviour and abundance of small sharks, rays, marine mammals and
turtles can all be changed by the decline of large sharks.
Being predators, sharks prey on fish that are easiest to catch. This removes the weakest genes from fish populations, maintaining their overall genetic
fitness and increasing the resistance of a population to disease. Sharks also help to maintain biodiversity, by feeding on many different species, ensuring no species overpopulates and depletes the population of other species.
Many divers travel across the world for great shark diving, generating annual revenues globally in the order of US%314 million and directly supports around 10,000 jobs. This provides an important socioeconomic benefit to many developing areas.
WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
As a trading hub of shark fins, Hong Kong has an important duty to improve monitoring and regulation
of the shark fin trade. The potential benefit of local management of Hong Kong’s shark fin trade cannot be ignored, as local management effectively means managing 50% of the global trade.
to concerns regarding the decline of shark populations many countries have banned shark fishing in their waters in favour of promoting tourism, a much more sustainable income. Shark tourism is their conservation. This is something everyone can do to help.
If the fantasy of man eating sharks can be replaced with more accurate perceptions, sharks have a better chance of gaining public support and better protection.
Say no to shark fin soup and try to avoid trawler
and longline caught fish. Most sharks are killed as either bycatch from fisheries or targeted by shark finning operators. You can help the sharks by not eating the extremely wasteful shark fin soup and by eating responsibly harvested sea food. Shark meat can
also be found under the name rock salmon and has even been discovered in battered fish and chips, so it’s good to know where your fish is from!
> “Sharkwater” by Rob Stewart
> Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation by Cisneros- Montemayor AM et al.
Adam Evans, SEI Marine Environmental Adviser
Sharks Educational Institute, 27th November, 2017