Shark Fin FAQs: Interview

A history of the Sea Stewards Shark Fin Movement-

Questions for David McGuire, Director Sea Stewards for Marine Biology Class, Skyline College

1.         What was your favorite moment you have ever captured on film and why?

It’s hard to say. I was charged by a sea lion bull in the Galapagos making a film called 180 South and held my ground, continuing filming.  The 450 pound animal bumped my lens but stopped cold, panting and snarling and glaring two feet from me.  It didn’t make it into the film.

I have dove with large groups of sharks, which is always exciting, like when we were making the film Shark Stewards of the Reef.  We dove with a hundred sharks all hunting at disk. In a large school of sharks it is impossible to watch all the individuals so you have to study the group behavior to know when things are turning from tranquil to sketchy.  Another time I was filming White sharks off Guadalupe Mexico out of a cage.  There were two large animals and two smaller sharks around 10 feet or so. I had a Mexican dive master who was my dive buddy and safety diver.  He used a broomstick as a fender. I was filming this 14 foot female Great White as she swam past about a meter away, panning her with my camera, thinking, “this is the shot!” I had a funny feeling and turning slowly, I saw another shark about a meter away with his Great White Grin.  It was a gotcha! moment for the shark but all he did was stare.  I exhausted my air and sank away finally glancing at my buddy who was staring face to face with another large shark. He looked at me, shrugged and we decided it was time to go topside.  The point is, when we are out diving, swimming ad surfing the sharks see us without us ever knowing  it and they generally leave us alone.

2.         Do sharks face a greater danger from over-hunting/fishing or from habitat destruction due to increased human activity in and around their waters?

This depends on location. Historically the San Francisco Bay has suffered huge impacts from habitat destruction, development, and pollution. Its much better but sharks and other species are still impacted from oil spills and dredging. Coral reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia have been damaged from dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning impacting coral, fish and indirectly sharks. But the new demand for shark fin has virtually erased sharks from many of the islands.  In 1000 dives our Academy team only saw two reef sharks that were protected by a dive resort. A news story we did on Dr. John McCosker for ABC Channel 7 tells how may sharks there used to be when he first dove there 30 years ago, and how few there are today.  By far the greatest threat to shark populations is from overfishing and the relatively new phenomena called shark finning.  Shark finning is where sharks are caught, the fins cut off and the shark discarded to make room for more fins and other fish.  This is driven by the huge demand for shark fin for the primarily Chinese delicacy shark fin soup.  Where sharks used to be caught and cut free to swim and survive, now they are killed for their fins at the rate of 73-100 million a year and populations are crashing as a result.  Although killing sharks just for fins is illegal in the USA and about 40 other countries, the demand is so high that shark populations are suffering. Even countries with laws against the practice contribute to the problem by allowing the trade of fins from sharks that have been illegally finned. There is no domestic source of shark fin, so the fins for shark fin soup here come from Hong Kong where they come from unknown fisheries, have been treated and re-exported.  We sequenced the DNA from an otherwise non descript fin purchased in San Francisco Chinatown and it was an endangered Great Hammerhead Shark. These sharks do not live in California and it is likely the fin came from a finned shark.


3.         Where did the main inspiration for Sea Stewards come from? What is the biggest idea you want viewers to get out of the film?

Ten years ago while on a sailing expedition through the South Pacific I dove wild atolls with healthy reef ecosystems in the South Pacific with lots of sharks.  We also dove other reefs that had no sharks or small sharks and the reefs didn’t look as healthy.  These islands are essentially uninhabited, but we learned that fishermen were killing the sharks just for their fins and discarding the shark bodies. Later in the harbor of the main port we saw small boats loading up tuna onto a ship with a Taiwanese flag.  The rail of the ship was lined with shark fins but not a single shark was loaded- only tuna.  I later discovered the magnitude of the problem of shark finning and the impacts losing sharks has on marine ecosystems.  That’s when we decided to make the film Shark Stewards of the Reef and I founded Sea Stewards to stop this practice and help regulate the shark fin trade.  There is a full account published here and other stories under press on the web site

4.    How do the sharks of the San Francisco Bay differ from those that you have studied elsewhere? And are the SF sharks in any more danger than the others? Why if so?

The most interesting shark we are looking at is the Sevengill shark. Sevengills are a large shark that prefers deeper water. They are a beautiful shark with only one dorsal fin and seven gills which is unusual since most sharks have five gills.  Sevengills come into the Bay to pup and reproduce and feed.  Our tagging indicates that the adults leave the Bay after some period of time, and return while others are resident. We have no idea how many there are or the extent of the range of this population, or how many are being fished. These sharks were once fished commercially and are still caught as bycatch in nets and by local fishermen. The wetland and shallow eelgrass bed habitat where the pups grow have been severely impacted but we have no idea if this and other local shark populations are seriously threatened or not. It’s symptomatic of most sharks how little we know,  even somewhere as sophisticated and managed as the San Francisco Bay. As a rule, we know very little about shark’s conservation status until we realize we have over fished them and the populations are threatened.  The California Thresher Shark population was dramatically reduced in the eighties by over fishing until the fishery was closed. This is why we need to scrutinize the amount of bycatch in fisheries like the gillnet fisheries, evaluate recreational impacts and protect critical habitat where the sharks are reproducing and giving birth.  Those core components are the basis of what we call the Shark Sanctuary program.

Hammerhead sharks are high up on the list of endangerment. These beautiful sharks have the misfortune of being the most coveted for their fins and they aggregate in areas where they are easily fished.  The combination of threats has delivered a double whammy and the sharks are disappearing from many locations around the world.  Recently three species of Hammerhead and other species like the Oceanic Whitetip have received additional protection under CITES- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This agreement will help control trade of fins and other body parts by the countries who have signed the agreement and recognize the convention.  It’s a start. We helped work on this proposal four years ago and helped garner support by tens of thousands of the public and it will make the fin trade of these species more difficult but not impossible. These sharks still need our protection and establishing shark sanctuaries and no fishing zones is another important solution.

5.      Why are sharks important in the ocean and how do they keep the ocean ecosystem healthy?  As apex predators, sharks are the regulators of the marine fid web.  Sharks maintain the health and the balance of fish populations. Removing apex predators has a cascade effect that impacts the fish below them all the way to the base of the food chain whether it be a coral reef, an estuary or a kelp forest.  We need large sharks.  It’s a lot of what we put into the film Shark Stewards of the Reef.

6.         Throughout your work, you have used film to share your research and influence people and policy.  What documentary or film of yours do you think was most effective in changing behavior and/or policy, and why?  Has your strategy changed with the increasing utilization of social media platforms such as Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook?

I’m a small time documentarian but I love to film and use film to tell ocean and nature stories. Winning an Emmy for Reefs to Rainforest, a TV documentary on the Philippines Biodiversity Expedition with the California Academy of Sciences and ABC was very rewarding.   I was stung by a lion fish, had a blistering rash from a nettle while filming on a volcano and worked really hard for two months in tough conditions to document the wonderful work of these scientists, Shark Stewards was an important film featuring several shark experts examining shark finning, sharks as predators and ecosystem health and establishing shark sanctuaries. It was made for PBS but it came out about the same time as Sharkwater, which was a great drama and had a much larger audience and impact for the good. Most of our work is small or no budget so we use the web and social media to spread the word and got onboard early on. It’s a great way to reach a world audience.

Today I’m more interested in reaching a larger audience through adventure- like the film 180 South or  Swim for Sharks- and embed the message in the drama.  Too often we preach to the choir or turn people off with our eco warnings, while Girls Gone Wild or Kitty Drives the Car gets a million hits on You Tube. Id like to make an impactful adventure series for the web to inspire youth about how cool sharks and the ocean are, and influence the world in a positive way.

7.      Being an underwater cinematographer and going on numerous sailing voyages, I’m sure you got a chance to come in contact with all type of marine organisms, when and what was that made your focus of marine documentation be centered on sharks? Was it more than them just being at the top of the food web in marine life?

I’ve always loved sharks and sought them out on my dives but I didn’t begin to study them until I learned about how threatened many species are.  One third of the large oceanic sharks are threatened with extinction. In my lifetime we have seen some populations decline to less than 10% of their original population.  Some predictions place outright extinction in another thirty years at the rate we are fishing.  Going back to the first question- it was when I learned about this gold rush for shark fin driven largely by economic prosperity in the east that inspired me to learn more and to explain what I and others have learned about this very grave threat to sharks and our oceans. That’s what drives my filmmaking.

Sharks are iconic; they are symbols, symbols of power and beauty but also symbols of what is going wrong in our oceans.  Sea Stewards logo is a white shark over the planet and the Pacific Ocean, the ost dominant feature on Earth.  This symbolizes it’s a world ocean and sharks are an important part of that ocean world from reefs to waves  to the fish we love to eat.  We need to use this symbol to rally around sharks and ocean health. That’s what Sea and Shark Stewards are about.  We intend to protect sharks and the health and balance of our oceans for the future.  An ocean without sharks would be like a swimming pool with a broken filter; algae ridden, stagnant and dead.

7.         I’ve always been interested in how conservation groups mobilize when faced with challenges. In that respect, how did your organization work with the public to get support for the passage of AB 376? And in what ways did these methods engage or challenge the public’s perspective about sharks?

Most people don’t think about sharks much unless it’s to fear or loathe them. The news and shark films typically focus on shark attacks when in fact its sharks who are under attack. We started campaigning using the documentary produced with my friends Christopher and Holiday Johnson. They owned the vessel and camera equipment and together we sounded the alarm on shark finning in 2006.  We started in the town of Tiburon where we screened the film at a film festival. Inspired by a young man and his friends we convinced the Mayor and town council to officially condemn shark finning and ban shark fin soup that same year. We took that to San Francisco where the largest and most affluent Asian American population consumed the most shark fin soup outside of Asia.  We attempted to garner support as we reached out to that community but we treaded water for five years attempting to pass a citywide shark fin ban. With the help of two prominent Asian American leaders -Senator Clayton Hee of Hawaii and CA Assemblyman Paul Fong who took the lead among that community. We worked with other groups and approached my Assemblyman (now Congressman) Jared Huffman to lead a state effort. We learned we must work with people within the culture or we are judging, pointing fingers and they will naturally take offense or become defensive.  It is a challenge to make it known that this is not a cultural issue, its an issue of sustainability and shark fin soup is unsustainable. The subject of race and discrimination against Chinese culture was raised – notably in the press by one Senator running for Mayor and by the interim mayor- but those claims were deflected both by a poll held by the Monterey Bay Aquarium indicating the majority (78%) of Chinese Americans would support a ban once they learned of the gravity of the situation, and by the formation of Chinese and other Asian Americans into a group called APAOHA who helped address the issue from a cultural perspective and help us pass AB 376. Without these community and environmental leaders and activists nothing would have gotten through the legislature.  We recently defended a lawsuit against the California ban claiming discrimination and helped pass similar legislation in other four states, three US territories and we are now working in 5 other US states and abroad to pass similar legislation.  I believe the public is starting to understand that this sharks are becoming endangered driven by a luxury and that we need to change our patterns for the oceans to survive.

8.         Since you began your campaign to end shark finning, have you seen any change in the number of sharks killed each year for their fins? Have you gotten the support of many local restaurants by the cessation of serving shark fin soup?

Shark numbers and fishery impacts are hard to come by but a recent study suggests around one hundred million sharks are being killed each year.  It is difficult to estimate shark populations and even more of a challenge to successfully manage them.  The oceans are vast and there are many illegal, unregulated and unreported shark fisheries. Enforcement is very difficult even for countries like the USA who have a navy, coast guard and local fish and wildlife enforcement officers. We have recently been working in Texas where sharks are poached from the Gulf by small Mexican launchas primarily for their fins it is believed by enforcement officers there. The waters around Asia are being fished clean and the effort is turning to the world ocean.  It’s a symptom of a sickness in every ocean around the globe. Spain is a huge exporter of shark and shark fin, purchasing the products from other EU fishers and Africa and exporting to Honk Kong and China.  The consumers need to be educated that this dish is causing destruction not just of sharks but the ecosystems sharks serve.  Like elephant ivory,  not only enforcement and trade regulation but also education is paramount.

As the trade of endangered species fins is regulated, we must keep educating and reaching out to Hong Kong and China to encourage them to shift their consumption to more sustainable patterns. Shark fin soup is a luxury we can live without but the oceans cannot survive with out sharks.  We need to keep working here in the USA to limit the shark fin trade going through our ports and work with Asian countries to reduce the demand.

Locally, California restaurants will be required to stop serving the dish as of July 1.  Law abiding citizens will cease selling it. There are always a few people who will do illegal acts for gain, but the lion’s share of the soup fin trade will stop in California. More importantly, we will be halting the flow of tons of shark fins coming through our ports for re-export.

It’s really a choice we all have to make. Will humanity continue to allow the greedy and the ignorant to exploit wild animals like whales, elephants, tigers and sharks until they are extinct, or will we make the decision that these products of millions of years of evolution are worth loving and protecting and fighting for?

Sea Stewards will keep fighting to protect sharks and restore the health and balance of the ocean. We need your help.


©David McGuire, Sea Stewards