Elissa Sursara is an Australia-based conservationist and correspondent using environmental biology to connect humans and the environment. Working with some of the world’s top environmental advocacy organisations, she builds political, scientific and social support for threatened species and habitats. Elissa is also a major champion of EIA’s work, helping us to spread word of our activities and campaigns to new audiences.
In today’s guest blog, she discusses shark conservation and finning, both hot topics around the world and in her home country.
Just 50 kilometers off the Whitsunday Islands on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I travelled with a group of scientists collecting photographs and data on the health of the ancient porites coral. On that day, however, our studies had been interrupted by biologists needing assistance in the locating of a dead or injured tagged shark.
At 21, I’d spent a good amount of time with large sharks and, despite a preoccupation with coral and algae, I was firmly on the look-out.
Arriving and diving to location, my peers and I were confronted with a slaughter on the seabed. More than 10 shark carcasses lay strewn, finned and stabbed, of all species including the magnificent tiger shark. Over the course of an hour, we collected dozens of samples and photographs for our research and reports, treating it as you would a crime scene, and the bodies as you would human victims.
It was there, 22ft below the surface, that I began to wonder who the real predators were. All around me, healthy reef sharks displayed their sleek and skilful abilities, clipping and gliding through the water, above and below the currents that threw me like a rag doll. Two tiger sharks had come and gone, each of them bored with the flurry of divers invading their usual habitat.
Not one shark had endangered me in the hours I’d spent in their proximity, but before long a stark realization dawned on me: in the 60 minutes I’d spent with these sharks, more than 10,000 others had been killed by humans. In the time it would take to return to base, another 35,000 would die.
The grisly aftermath of shark finning in Senegal (c) Sebastián Losada
Brutally disfigured for their fins and meat, more than 75 million sharks are killed worldwide each year. For sport, for food and through by-catch, humans have hunted sharks into their alarming decimation for more than a staggering 100 years. Where they once ranged in temperate coastal seas and oceans, they now exist in poor minorities, extinct in some of their historical ranges. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Food and Agricultural Organization, more than 100 of 400 shark species have been commercially exploited in our time. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the top five most endangered shark species include the scalloped hammerhead and the whale shark and, with less than 4,000 remaining in the wild, the giant great white shark.
Shark fin consumption is a leading cause of decline for worldwide shark populations. The dish is served prominently in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, and entails the boiling down of shark fins, later served in a flavored broth or soup, often with herbs or vegetables. The fin itself offers no taste and little to no nutritional value, but is nevertheless considered a delicacy, consumed by the wealthy and by those believing in its disproven abilities to heal and strengthen the human form.
Shark meat or ‘flake’, sometimes sold as cod or whiting, is consumed all over the world. The meat is often mislabeled or used as blend or prop meat and is most popularly consumed by patrons of side street fish & chip shops.
Despite the range of shark fin and flake consumption, it’s our fear of the shark that reigns over its push towards extinction. Represented by Hollywood films and its aligning media as ferocious man-eaters, sharks are a species offered little to no legal protection, despite qualifying as critically endangered on mass international scales. In a bid to obtain viewers, the media typically sensationalizes shark attacks, although they are less likely to kill humans than falling pianos.
In the United States, the annual average number of people who drown is 3,306, whereas the annual average number of shark attack fatalities is one.
Although attacks are preventable, sharks are often slaughtered as a thoughtless attempt to keep bathers safe. In 2012, following five condensed attacks in Australia, the Western Australian government proposed and passed a bill that would see all sharks killed on sight if they dared range too close to shorelines. Colin Barnett, with the government, said sharks posed an unnecessary risk to bathers and justified the killing of endangered white sharks which breached designated boundaries.
When pressed by conservationists who believe shark culls pose an unnecessary risk to shark populations, and asked to comment on the explanation that shark influx was relative to seasonal whale migration, Barnett declined to comment.
There have been only 216 fatal shark attacks in Australia since 1791.
In 2012, as of October 3, there have been two fatal shark attacks in Australian waters. In 2011, there were four. There was one fatal attack in 2010 in Australian waters, and in 2009 and 2007 there were none.
Comparatively, across the same duration, humans killed 375 million sharks.
In the long-term, present decisions to consume and kill off shark populations have devastating consequences on sharks, other species and on the greater health of the oceans. Top predators such as the shark influence underwater community structures in an irreplaceable way: they manage healthy ecosystems by feeding on animals that exist beneath them in the pelagic food web and pick off sick and weak individuals with potential to spread disease.
This hierarchy occurs naturally to help maintain the balance of a sensitive marine ecosystem. Without apex predators, there are no superior hunters to limit populations of prey and regulate the occurrence of other marine species, and without sharks there’s a worrying potential for unbridled predation and destruction of the delicate marine habitat.
Put simply, the loss of sharks is a loss of sea structure.
And while it’s true that sharks pose a minor risk to humans, as do cars and trains and airplanes, sharing their ocean home doesn’t have to be so ‘deadly’.
Few surfers and bathers are aware of the simple precautions to take to avoid an unwanted shark encounter. Ensuring you bathe in small groups of at least two or three and surfing away from any known seal colonies will dramatically lessen your chances of encountering a curious shark.
Avoiding bathing in the early mornings and evenings, and keeping clear of spots known for consistent fishing activity, as well as abstaining from bathing in river mouths and murky waters, are fundamentals to keeping yourself safe in the water, not only from sharks and other predators but from boats and accidental drowning.
Finally, improving our education about and knowledge of sharks will foster a stronger respect for the important apex predators. And in time, humans will learn to respect those they fear, creating a channel to better protect and conserve the ocean bounty and all that dwells beneath its vast and mysterious surface.
• Find out more about Elissa’s work by visiting her website here.