Shark Week and the State of Sharks

From Sea Stewards KQED Quest Blog

This week millions of viewer’s eyes will be turned to Shark Week, the Discovery Channel's most popular program. With shows like "Top Five Eaten Alive", "Killer Sharks and Rogue Sharks", the program continues to dish up blood, teeth and fear, while perpetuating the irrational perception that sharks are killing machines.

On average ten humans die from sharks each year. On the contrary over 100 million sharks are killed as bycatch and in fisheries in the same period of time. The fact is that while shark attacks on humans are relatively rare, sharks die at the hands of humans by the tens of thousands each day in the open ocean, near shore and in marine reserves. Most of these sharks are killed for their fins to supply the shark fin soup trade.

Like the tusks of African elephants, the high demand for the luxury trade in shark fins is driving sharks to extinction.

The practice of shark finning is to target sharks solely for the valuable fin while discarding the body at sea. The demand for fins for the luxury dish shark fin soup is creating a huge incentive to kill sharks just for the fin, while discarding the less valuable body.

To stem this tide of destruction Pacific Island nations like Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the State of Hawaii have established shark sanctuaries and banned not only the practice of fining, but the sale of shark fin themselves. It is hoped that reducing the consumption will reduce the demand and help protect shark populations. In California, similar legislation is being proposed to help protect sharks in US and international waters. Currently in Senate Committee, the California Shark Protection Act, AB 376 would ban the trade, sale and possession of shark fin in California.

In my travels as a filmmaker, I have seen ships rails lines with shark fins off the Galapagos, drifting longlines loaded with sharks near Cocos Island, and shops in San Francisco stacked with bins and jars of shark fins. Shark fin soup is on the menu of hundreds of Bay Area restaurants. Customs records indicate that most shark fins entering California are being imported from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Hong Kong. Many of these fins are from endangered species and plausibly from marine reserves. Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences have sequenced the DNA of shark fins purchased in San Francisco and found threatened and vulnerable species. Nearly one third of all shark species are listed as threatened with extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists estimate that some large open ocean sharks like the oceanic whitetip have been fished to mere remnants of their original population. Sharks are the regulators of marine ecosystems. They are the surgeons and the sanitarians and keep the ocean healthy and clean. Without sharks, the ecosystems decay into an unhealthy state that disrupts reefs, the fish we eat and ultimately the air we breathe.

Where the practice of finning is deplorable even by opponents of AB 376, some senators have claimed the law is an attack on Asian culture. They propose to allow shark fins for sale from sustainable shark fisheries, although it would be difficult to identify such a thing. By their nature as the top predator, there are fewer sharks than other fish. Their biology makes sharks extremely vulnerable to overfishing because they cannot rebound. A targeted shark fishery will ultimately reduce the population to an unsustainable level. We experienced this in San Francisco with the sevengill and soupfin shark fisheries in the mid-20th century. If this amendment is allowed, the market for shark fins will be opened and black market fins will enter the trade. Tracing a shark fin to a boat or a fishery is extremely difficult, and Fish and Game officials do not have the ability to distinguish illegal fins from legal fins.

This loophole will allow sharks to be finned: business as usual. This August, Californians can step up and protect sharks, or allow special interests to water down or kill the shark protection bill. A healthy ocean is essential for the welfare of all cultures, and cultures can adapt their tastes to do the right thing. The ban on Caspian caviar is a perfect example.

This "Shark Week" while we are watching the thrilling images of sharks gnashing at cages or reenacting shark attacks, we should be thinking of future films titled, "Dead Water and Empty Ocean". We need to stop fearing sharks and fear for their future, and the future of a healthy ocean. To learn more, go to seastewards.org.