At the end of Shark Week, it’s time for some good news on sharks. This is not me trying to convince you sharks are huggable and loveable (though, they are, obviously), rather a round-up of some good conservation news for the world’s often-underappreciated shark species.
This year at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) convention, countries agreed measures to limit the trade in a number of shark species. That means there is now greater control on several of the most threatened species: hammerheads, porbeagle, oceanic whitetips, as well as whale and basking sharks. Whilst this isn’t earth-shattering news, or full-blown protection it has been a hard-won victory to get any restrictions on the global trade in endangered sharks specifically (and fish in general!). So it’s great news for sharks that the global community seems to have turned a corner in agreeing that steps need to be taken. There is, of course, more to do…
And one of the most obvious things is to crack down on the horrendous practice of shark finning. Shark finning is when sharks are intentionally or ‘accidentally’ caught (often in the process of fishing for tuna), and just their fins are harvested. Sorry, ‘harvested’ sounds quite reasonable. Finning a shark is frankly no different than shooting a rhino or an elephant to hack off its horns or tusks … and the market is similarly for an entirely pointless and unnecessary product. Shark fin soup has celebratory status as a dish, but by all accounts is rather tasteless, in both senses of the word.
The good news on shark finning is that public perception is turning here too. The European Union recently agreed a ban on shark finning, meaning sharks, if caught, have to be landed with fins intact. That might not be enough for some of you, but it’s a huge step in stamping out the finning business. There is more to do here of course, especially on the issue of demand for shark fin soup. So it’s encouraging to see New York become the third US state to ban the sale of shark fins. Some haulage companies are turning away shark fin as a cargo too. This is sending a powerful message, that finning is increasingly unacceptable, but there is a long way to go. That’s why our colleagues in New Zealand for example are campaigning hard right now to get their country to be next on the list to consign shark finning to history.
These steps forward in regulating the trade of sharks is happening hand-in-hand with a growing awareness of sharks, and their place in the ecosystem. Around the world, previously feared or persecuted shark populations have become tourist attractions. Great whites provide a powerful spectacle off South Africa, whilst the sunny (no, really) isles of the Scottish Hebrides are one of the best places in the world to get up close with giant basking sharks. Whale sharks draw the tourists in the Philippines and Gulf of Mexico, whilst the waters of the Maldives offer up spectacular manta rays. Coral reefs in the tropics support an array of life, of course, but sharks are undoubted crowd-pleasers there too. Of course, these need to be developed carefully and considerately, as with all eco-tourism ventures, to have the minimum impact possible on the star turns.
As sharks are being increasingly valued alive, some governments are seizing the opportunity to invest in them. That’s where marine reserves come in. Some shark species may be oceanic wanderers, but many have preferred feeding or breeding grounds that can be protected. Where sharks are protected, such as in the Chagos Archipelago, or seas around Fiji, the effects are plain to see – with scientists recording thriving shark populations in these oceanic sanctuaries.
The future for sharks could be bright, but we need to do much more to help redress the balance of what we have done, and are still doing to them. If Shark Week has one take home message – it should be that.
Willie Mackenzie is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK.