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Love for the Lion of the Sea

If it weren’t for China’s emergence as an economic whale, it might be a good time to be the lion of the sea.

After decades of being cast as the ocean’s most loathed predator, sharks are finally getting some love. With their numbers crashing, the world is finally realizing we need sharks.  Marine preserves are being established in Asia to save them and a great white’s favorite food, seals, are being protected by international treaties. Their numbers are on the rise while some shark species edge toward extinction.

Commercial overfishing has reduced shark populations by at least 80 to 90 percent pushing several shark species to the endangered list.  U.S. weekend fishermen are starting to realize it isn’t so macho to kill sharks anymore. The annual Montauk (Long Island) shark fishing tournament was a no-kill catch and release tourney this past July for the first time in its 27 year history.  Sharks that were caught were tagged and are now being tracked by OCEARCH, a leading shark conservation non-profit. It was Montauk’s shark fishermen that spawned the movie, “Jaws” that some environmentalists partially blame for the last three decade shark slaughter.

Academics and non-profit conservation groups are singing sharks’ praises trying to peel back the countless bad press and movie depictions of sharks as cold blooded killers.  Like the lion, the shark is the necessary top of the food chain predator. Without sharks the ocean’s ecosystem is upset. Fewer sharks mean more octopus and fewer lobsters. Sharks stabilize the sea, reducing populations of sick and diseased fish.  They are also good for tourism especially in South Africa and Australia where free diving with great whites has become big albeit dangerous business.

Chinese Food

As predators go, few are better equipped than many species of shark.  Their chiseled teeth are collector’s items and their powerful yet stealthy propulsion allow them to kill seals instantly.  A shark’s predatory efficiency may also be part of its downfall especially in the eyes of China.  To the Chinese, the shark is a symbol of vitality.  Since the Ming Dynasty the shark represents energy, a jolt of sexual potency.  Today’s mythology sees the shark as synonymous with wealth and power, China’s current obsessions.  Shark fin soup is often served at Chinese banquets and in upscale Chinese restaurants, a serving of shark fin soup can cost $400. A whale shark, a peaceful plankton feeder, is the world’s largest fish. One was caught in 2005 and fetched $50,000 for its fins, according to Callum Roberts, a Scottish oceanographer and author of “The Ocean of Life.” The world’s smallest shark at eight inches is the Caribbean’s dogfish shark.  It is far less prized.

China gets a bad rap in environmental circles and rightly so. Much of the elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is China bound. Although shark fins are tasteless and provide little nutrition, the Chinese are bound by their traditions and continue to order shark fin soup. This demand has led to the doubling in the shark fin trade  in the last 15 years. YouTube images of fisherman slicing off fins and throwing sharks back in the ocean have led to increasing international condemnation. Once finned, a shark dies, and an estimated 70 million sharks are killed annually by fishermen. This has led to bans in the shark fin trade. In 2012 the People’s Republic of China banned shark fin soup at official banquets, but it will take three years to implement. Taiwan has already enacted its ban.  Singapore’s three largest supermarket chains have stopped selling shark fins. Several of Asia’s most prestige hotels, including the Peninsula and Shangri-La Hotels have stopped serving shark fin soup. Hong Kong Disneyland has taken it off the menu. In the U.S. Hawaii, California and three other states have banned the sale and possession of shark fins. Chinese-Americans have filed law suits to overturn the bans citing discrimination.

Swimming with Sharks

Instead of eating shark fins, many are eager to swim with them, even great whites, the most feared of the world’s 400 shark species.  Shark tourism is growing and along with marine preserves is the shark’s best defense against overfishing.  Local governments will protect the ocean from foreign trawlers that indiscriminately kill sharks, turtles and other reef attractions to save their tourism business. The Bahamas banned long line fishing in its waters 20 years ago and today 60,000 tourists annually spend $80 million to swim with 40 varieties of sharks including the nine foot Caribbean reef shark.  The Bahamas’ minister of tourism is convinced that a live shark is worth a lot more than a dead one. Since the fishing ban, the country’s fish stocks have rebounded.

In the late 1970s Australian diver Rodney Fox came up with the idea of putting tourists in underwater cages then chumming for great whites. By 1989, South Africa’s Pieter van der Walt and photographer George Askew started their shark cage business. By the new century shark cage viewing had peaked and now free dives without cages are the trend. Shark diving companies in South Arica will let you dive or snorkel among sharks. Guides attract sharks but keep the clientele a safe distance, although it might be a good idea to make sure your health insurance policy is current. The company features five dive spots including the Bazaruto Archipelago, a shark rich four-island marine conservation area in southern Mozambique.

Shark tourism is often criticized for manipulating wildlife, but its purveyors argue they are helping save the species by combating overfishing. Given the choice of tourists in the water with cameras or fisherman with sharp knives, I’d take the tourists any day.

Netting the Poachers

Where are the world’s richest shark fishing grounds?  In national marine parks.

Just two percent of the world’s seas are declared protected, yet the fishing industry covets them.  After nearly fishing out 98 percent of the ocean, commercial fishers have no place left to plunder.  Global poaching fleets vs. indigenous communities is an increasing battle.  Indonesia is a key battle ground.

The Kawe Marine Preserve is Southeast Asia’s largest no-take marine reserve. It is part of the Bird’s Head Seascape and has rebounding fish stocks, but is attracting fishing vessels because it is the lone part of Eastern Indonesia’s seas that are healthy.  In May 2012, 33 poachers were caught with $160,000 worth of sharks and manta rays on their seven boats. After their gear and catch was confiscated, the naval officer made a formal arrest and ordered the poachers to port for a court appearance. It was late, the officer had a small skiff and in no position to take the accused back to port. Not surprisingly the poachers didn’t show the next day in court, but the confiscation sent a message to the poaching community that Kawe is being patrolled.

The Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador is among the most revered marine sanctuaries in the world. Sailing on the Beagle, it was where Charles Darwin conjured his evolutionary thesis. It is also a major shark habitat and a poacher’s paradise. In July 2011, the Ecuadorian Navy caught an industrial long line fishing vessel 20 nautical miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Inside the vessel’s holds were 357 sharks including 286 Thresher Sharks.  Two years earlier two boats were seized on separate raids months apart and over 400 sharks were found dead. Even though arrests were made, local authorities fined the captains $12,000 for the two incidents and no jail time was given out. Sea Shepherd, a confrontational conservation NGO, continues to assist the authorities.  But if we can’t stop shark poaching in a UNESCO biosphere where tourism is common, how can we safeguard sharks anywhere else?

The question is not rhetorical and has a relatively simple answer. The lion of the sea can only continue to roar if connoisseurs of shark fin soup are convinced that the sight of a live shark in the ocean is far better than the taste of extinction.