I S S U E S
I S S U E S
Lou: "These are many contributing factors to the current threat facing sharks, some are easier to describe than others and situations are not always black and white. However we need to understand how these are all linked together and what effects these are having cumulatively, as well as addressing all of these issues individually if we hope to prevent the situation spiralling to the point of no return."
A protected Great White shark being 'finned' on a beach in Mozambique, Africa.
By far shark finning is causing the most damage to shark populations, and is doing so at exceptional speed. It is estimated that over two thirds of ALL the sharks caught and killed globally, are done so for shark fin. Finning is essentially the the removal of the sharks fins from its body either when the animal is brought into port, or out at sea. There is enormous demand for shark fins; which are currently one of the worlds most expensive seafood products, selling for around $700 (approx. £450) per kilogram.
In this practice sharks are caught on a longline - a particularly destructive fishing method consisting of a long fishing line, up to 63 miles in length, set at sea for long periods at sea and covered with thousands of baited hooks - this method is totally un-selective and can hook sharks, turtles, albatross, dolphin, fish, seals, and whales.
The sharks are pulled on board a boat, often still alive, where they are quickly set upon by fishermen who use machete and long knives to hack off the sharks fins - often whilst the animal is still alive.
The fins are kept, but as there is little to no profit in the meat the shark is thrown back into the sea where it will drown (most sharks need their fins to swim and therefor breath) or slowly bleed to death. Not only is this practice unacceptably cruel; The sharks suffer excruciating pain and distress before they die a horrible, slow death (remember how many senses these creatures have!) it is also unacceptably wasteful.......only 5% of the shark is used the remaining 95% is thrown to the bottom of the ocean.
This short Film features footage taken undercover on a finning vessel and footage by Lesley Rochat
Many countries and governments have made this practice illegal, however due to the profit to be made from the fin; this still happens on an enormous scale around the world, and has become interwoven with other illegal activities such as drug smuggling. In 2013 the EU tightened up loopholes in the finning law meaning that sharks caught by EU vessels anywhere in the world must be landed with their fins naturally attached.
However some EU countries are contesting this, and there is a high probability that illegal finning is still taking place, because sadly there is no political will to enforce these laws at sea. When added to this fact, the law of landing sharks with fins naturally attached actually does little to help the over all problem; as sharks are still being caught and killed, just disposed of in a different way, and unfortunately fishermen often find other ways to navigate around the laws in port. This practice has now created a new market for shark meat - where there was not one before - so does little to help the problem of overfishing simply changes and manipulates the demand.
Many modern fishing techniques are totally un-selective, meaning that millions of tons of marine life are caught every year regardless of whether or not these are part of these are targeted catch. The term bycatch therefor refers to the fish and other marine life that is caught unintentionally in a fishery that is designed to catch other more specific fish species. Often these creatures are discarded if they are not commercially viable - meaning that they are returned dead or dying back into the sea because there is no market for them to be sold.
Until relatively recently sharks with the exception of a few species were discarded when caught, sometimes alive - often not. However several factors have altered this practice, with the result of exasperating declines within shark populations globally. Since fisheries diversified in the 90's due to overfishing there has been a massive retention increase in previously discarded sharks, shark is now often utilised in the place of fish such as cod or swordfish in some fisheries, and the market for this has boomed. Shark liver oil and cartilage is utilised in so-called 'health' products and teeth, jaws and even stuffed sharks or baby sharks in jars make a lot of money in tourism and for use in jewellery.
Add to this the fact that shark fins have become increasingly valuable, and the result is that despite available means; many fishing fleets have little to no incentive to take measures to reduce shark bycatch. It is easier and more profitable to cut off the fins for one market, and where there is a requirement for the flesh - keep the carcass, or if not simply dump it out at sea.
Many fisherman do recognise the important role sharks play in maintaining healthy fish stocks and are concerned with their decline however the inevitable truth is that sadly as long as destructive and un-manageable fishing techniques persist sharks will continue to be caught. The imperative is therefor to work with fisheries and technologies at every level to ensure this is avoided and to closely monitor catches at sea and in ports; to enable a better understanding of areas where catch limits need to be imposed.
Shark appears on menus around the world in various guises, in some countries it is considered a delicacy; counties such as Iceland enjoy fermented shark, in others sometimes the livers or even the eggs or unborn shark foetuses are preferred. However shark is often more widely used as a cheap alternative to more expensive fish, often even miss-sold underneath a false name or passed off to unknowing customers who do not realise they are eating shark at all, let alone a species that is critically endangered in various parts of the ocean. Shark meat is also often avalible in resteraunts and supermarkets and in the UK it is readily avalible in Fish and Chip shops either labeled as shark or sold as the more palitable sounding; Rock Salmon, Flake or Huss.
Sometimes wholesalers market shark to these businesses knowingly under a false name such as 'Cod' or 'Pollock' other times the shark can be sold to businesses who then purposely miss-label it on their menus to make it more appealing to their customers.
So unless the shark is sold as shark at every point of its journey from the ocean to the plate, the issue here then becomes one of transparency; who is selling what to who? and if this is not traceable – why is this not traceable? The consumer and sometimes the businesses themselves in this equation loose their right to knowing what they are purchacing and what they are eating, and in doing so loose the knowledge of the effect their consumer habits have on the oceans and our collective futures.
The difficulty with this is in understanding the responsibility for it. Who is responsible in this scenario?
1. Does this responsibility lie with the government? Do we need stricter laws on bycatch and labeling of produce, and more importantly do we need the political will to inforce these laws – and where does this will come from?
2. Does this lie with the fishermen? Do we need them to except responsibility for what they are catching, the techniques they are using and how they are selling to buisnesses or the public?
3. Does this lie with the wholesalers? Does there need to be more transparency in knowing exactly where fish comes from; knowing how it was caught and having stricter labelling rules when this is sold on to restaurants and businesses?
4. Does the responsibility lie with the businesses knowing where their fish is sourced and what species they are selling at all times, as well as correctly labelling their menus?
5. Does it lie with consumers? If we make decisions to buy fish of any kind, should we not know what impact this could be having and educate ourselves to the possibilities of what we may be eating and the process our food goes through before we eat it – if we choose to.
Of course this relys on us knowing what we are buying is actually what we are told it is in the first place! So really the answer to this question is all of the above - there needs to be a chain of responsibility and transparency at every level and we all need to be responsible individually and collectively for our impact if we hope to stop the over exploitation of sharks to the point where none remain.
Check out our campaigns page for more information on what We are doing to promote responsibility and transparency in our 'Whats beneath the batter' campaign!
Spain, France and the UK rank among the world’s top 20 shark fisheries.
Recent assessments by the ICUN Redlist (International Union for conservation of nature, who list species according to their conservation status globally and regionally) have ranked the sharks of the North East Atlantic (Including North Africa) and the Mediterranean Sea with the WORST conservation status of all assessed regions. Fifty per cent of UK and Mediterranean sharks species are now listed by the ICUN as threatened; this number could soon increase as information provided to the ICUN status reports dates from several years ago and so is now outdated. Recent evidence suggests that due to increased Longlining operations and various other destructive and un-selective fishing methods; current shark numbers are now even more drastically decreased than previously thought.
One especially worrying fact is that although countries including the US, Canada, and Brazil all have large commercial fishing fleets working in the Eastern Atlantic, the EU fishing fleet totally dominates shark catches from this ocean. Between 2000 and 2012 88% of ALL sharks landed globally by EU vessels were caught in the Atlantic ocean despite the fact that the EU have a global presence with fleets present in the Indian and Pacific oceans. In particular Blue shark landings have tripled in number since 2002 - and as there are no current catch limits on this or many other Atlantic species of shark there is nothing to stop this number rising even further.
Sharks have a naturally occurring compound called Squalene within their livers also known as shark liver oil, it is exceptionally abundant in deep sea shark species such as Gulper sharks and Portuguese dogfish; (as well as many others) as these deep sea sharks have large livers to help control their buoyancy, and as such they also contain the most oil.
Squalene and its associated compound squalane are utilised in a variety of ways, from machine grade lubricant to sun cream, and can often be found in cosmetics such as moisturisers, lip balm, foundation, anti-wrinkle cream, even deodorants! The oil itself is also sold in capsule form in health shops proclaiming that it will protect you against arthritis or cancer, despite there being no scientific proof of this what so ever. This is often sold alongside shark cartilage pills that claim to do the same, as well as the supposed added benefits for your haemorrhoids and psoriasis. (Again there is no scientific proof of this)
The species targeted for this oil and associated compounds are heavily overfished due to the demand for the cosmetics and so called medicines containing them. Unfortunately these sharks are also some of the most vulnerable, due to their slow growth rate and very slow reproductive cycles, many are now listed by the ICUN RED LIST as threatened or critically endangered.
However there are alternatives to the use of Squalene as it can be replicated utilising vegetable sources (such as olives!) and some cosmetics company's have made this switch. Commercial products such as these and the market for shark cartilage pills, provide added incentives for unsustainable shark fisheries around the world and serves to bolster the value of dead sharks rather than encourage the value of live sharks and ecosystem health. But until consumers realise where these ingredients come from and are educated about the loss of marine life, Squalene and shark cartilage will remain for sale in many high street and online outlets......but we want to change that!
BIOACCUMULATION; is the gradual build up of a chemical or metal in a living organism that occurs over time . This is often because the compound or substance cannot be broken down (metabolised) for use by the organism.
Chemical pollutants and heavy metals find their way into the ocean from many sources; Rain can often wash freshly sprayed Agricultural pesticides into streams where they will eventually make their way to rivers, estuaries, and then the ocean. Another major source of toxic contaminants is the presence of compounds from industrial waste and processing from coal fired smokestacks and even car exhaust emissions; which are all return to the ground in rainfall. Often the Deliberate and occasionally illegal discharge of compounds into water is further source of chemical pollutants.
Once a toxic pollutant is in the ocean it easily enters the food chain. For instance, in the water, pollutants adsorb or bind to small particles such as marine debris or plastic (a further damaging pollutant) but can also bind to or be absorbed by tiny living organisms called phytoplankton. Because there is a small amount of pollutant attached to each phytoplankton, it doesn't cause much damage at this level, however, a small creature might then consume the particle. When a creature at this level of the food web such as; zooplankton eats twenty phytoplanktons the creature would then have twenty times the amount of pollutant now in its system as the phytoplankton.
The pollutant has therefore built up via bioaccumulation and has become Biomagnified within the organism.
Fish and shellfish and therefore sharks; concentrate these chemicals, especially mercury - in their bodies through this biomaginfication process, often in the form of methylmercury; a highly toxic organic compound of mercury which is widely known as a neurotoxin.
Organisations throughout the world, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), recognize mercury to be incredibly dangerous as a neurotoxin and warn against eating shark in all forms, especially pregnant women, women who plan to become pregnant, or children.
This then continues up the food chain; a small fish might eat twenty zooplankton, this fish would have 200 times the level of toxic pollutant as the original phytoplankton and so on..... This multiplication would continue throughout the food web until high levels of contaminants have biomagnified in the top apex predators in this case sharks.
While the amount of pollutant might have been small enough not to cause any damage in the lowest levels of the food web, the final accumulated amount causes serious damage to organisms higher in the food web.
A recent study by Chilean researchers found that 79% of shark fins tested contained high-levels of BMAA, a dangerous neurotoxin linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases, as well as toxic levels of Lead and Mercury that far exceeded safe recommenations.
Levels of Arsenic contamination in one single fin can be 13-32 times China’s national guideline for marine products and 10% of all shark fins, contain impurities such as hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde, each considered hazardous to human health.
There are charter boats for day trips, trophy hunters, and specialist shark sports fishermen who spend their days shipping rich business men/women, celebrities, or stag do's out to catch endangered species in the name of recreation. More recently there has even been an upsurge in TV shows following the glorification of 'man' versus beast such as NBC'S Shark hunters - Featuring three separate shark fishing tournaments on the East Coast of America and the captains competing in them. The show itself is an unpleasant combination of machismo, bloody high-fives and the wide-eyed killing of sharks for entertainment.
Often with sports fishing comes the peace-meal, thrown in for good measure; excuses for the sport as an aid to conservation and “shark science” namely that sharks are caught and then tagged and released for reaserch purposes. While this can sometimes be the case and sports events are occasionally supported by scientific body's, often animals are caught with no stated intent for peer-reviewed research, and this is used as an excuse for the continuation of a badly carried out competition.
Whilst we agree that is very important for sharks to be studied and catch and release is the lesser of the two evils of sports fishing – unless this is carried out methodically and in a controlled environment to a stringent set of data markers in a way this does not harm the shark – this has little benefit to science and cannot be said to be such. Often sharks that are caught in sports events and then realised suffer complications and die at a later point, or are made vulnerable to disease or attack from other predators in their weakened state.
The most controversial shark 'cull' to date was developed in January 2014 by Australian Premier Colin Barnett and then Fisheries Minister Troy Buswell; and was implimented in response to a total of seven fatal attacks off Western Australia between 2010 - 2013. The policy authorised the deployment of baited and hooked drum-lines near popular beaches: designed to catch and kill Great White sharks, Tiger sharks and bull sharks, and all sharks hooked measuring over 3 metres in length were shot and their bodies disposed of at sea.
The principle behind this policy was to reduce the threat of shark attacks at popular beaches; and a total of 172 sharks were caught - however the fatal attacks in WA were reportedly carried out by Great Whites and not a single GW shark was caught during the process. The drum-lines did however catch 163 Tiger sharks, yet there has not been a fatal tiger shark bite reported in the drumlined area since 1929. There is no scientific evidence that culling works, and in the case of the WA cull scientific opinion was in fact diss-reguarded; as many government scientists advised against it.
Clearly this shows the culling process in WA was ludicrously un-selective, and the main effect it had was to diminish the health of the ecosystem within which Tiger sharks play a critical role.
Although some regions, including the European Union, have banned the practice of shark finning, and commercial fisheries for fins, Finning still occurs and fins are still traded on an enormous scale as there is no political will to enforce bans and illegal trade. Fishing for meat, liver oil, cartilage and other body parts still continues in what are largely unregulated shark fisheries all around the world, and much needs to be done to address these issues immediately.
Under the proposals put forward by the 2013 CoP16 CITES meeting - five shark species were listed as "Appendix II",
These species joined Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), Whale shark (Rhincodon typus), and the Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) as Appendix II listed species;. which would ensure that any international trade in them is sustainable and legal.
This is a huge step in the right direction for protecting some of the sharks species most at risk of extinction - however much more needs to be done and soon if we are to prevent further large scale species decline in many of the worlds oceans.
Many - if not all species of shark need better protection now to prevent possible extinction within coming decades, as anywhere between 63 million sharks and 273 million are killed each year, according to research by North American scientists published in the journal Marine Policy.
Boris Worm - Dalhousie University in Halifax, states: "Biologically, sharks simply can't keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species in our lifetime."
Trophic cascade, an ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes inecosystem structure and nutrient cycling . Encyclopaedia Britannica.
e have no way of knowing for sure what the effects of large-scale predator removal will be. However as much of the oxygen and nutrients Human beings need for survival come from organisms linked in ocean ecosystems controlled by sharks - surely it is in our interests to ensure these systems do not fall apart and the sharks remain to do what they do best!
Shark fin is the primary ingredient of shark fin soup, a dish that originated as a luxury item in China during the Ming dynasty and rose to popularity in the late 18th century as standards of living were improving and people could afford to show their wealth. It was coveted because it was rare and required elaborate preparation techniques.
Due to the massive upsurge in the Chinese economy and the improvements to modern fishing technology; in more resent times shark fin soup has become readily available, and what was once served at royal banquets is now served at weddings, business dinners and in many restaurants. In fact shark fin is now consumed all around the world by many different cultures, and demand is growing because of the prestige that is associated with consuming it; a single bowl can cost up to £100 pounds.
The sharks fins have little to zero nutritional value or taste as they are composed of cartilage, so the soup is flavoured with chicken or pork, and essentially what is being eaten is a glorified chicken broth, with the fins added to give the dish texture and the diner the allusion of power and wealth. But the shark fin is not only flavourless and devoid of nutrition - it is also extremely bad for you, due to a process called Bio-accumulation (see section further down page) shark fin contains very high levels of Mercury and other toxic metals and chemicals that can have debilitating effects to the brain and nervous system when eaten in large quantities.....yummy.
It seems very strange that all around the world we are destroying ecosystems and driving species to extinction all for a soup that is poisonous!
Shark fin soup may have had its origins in Asia but it has quickly become a global problem, one that we must combat together if we are to stand any change of stopping the extinction of sharks for soup. Almost every country with a coastline is implicit in the trade and export of shark fin, with Spain ranking 3rd highest in the world for exports consistently year by year. The UK is also part of this problem, in 2010 the UK exported over 13,356 tons of shark fin to Hong Kong.
By educating people about the damage caused through consuming shark fin, engaging communities and cultures, and ensuring laws are upheld, as well as limiting the trade, sale and distribution of shark fin in a co-ordinated global effort, we can turn the tide on this epic slaughter and prevent one of the worlds oldest and most important predators from disappearing forever.