When it comes to declining shark populations, fin soup aficionados are just part of the problem.
Thursday, February 24, 2000
If your greatest fear of the ocean stems from a certain 1970s Steven Spielberg film featuring a giant, bloodthirsty carcharodon carcharias, you might be relieved to find out that this particular shark and other varieties are being killed in record numbers.
As comforting as this may sound to surfers and swimmers, it''s got marine biologists worried sick.
This was the most certain--and most upsetting--conclusion reached at the first-ever international conference of shark experts held last week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. More than 120 scientists and researchers from around the world--including some from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Moss Landing Marine Labs, and Santa Cruz''s Pelagic Shark Research Foundation--attended the confab.
The goal of the gathering, organized by the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, was to bring together scientists, fishermen and research groups to share information on their little-understood obsession--pelagic ("open ocean") sharks of every shape and size--and to discuss ways to study and protect them.
After three days talking about the biology, population trends and management strategies of pelagic sharks from Japan to the Atlantic Coast, conference attendees agreed they need to collect information faster in order to better deal with the shark problem before it becomes a real crisis. Better enforcement and implementation of worldwide conservation regulations is needed, scientists found, and they urged all countries to adopt the recent objectives in the United Nation''s International Plan of Action for sharks.
The consensus, according to event co-organizer Ellen Pikitch, was this: "The tremendous amount of biological information presented and gathered clearly pointed to the fact that these animals are vulnerable to overfishing."
Ocean Wildlife Campaign Director David Wilmot summed it all up in his opening remarks:
"The reputation of sharks not only has been damaged by movies like Jaws, but there''s a huge fishing pressure on the populations. Pelagic sharks are very difficult to study because they''re highly migratory and don''t reproduce quickly. These scientists are studying their species and areas, and now we want them all together to share that to get a bigger picture of the critters'' status. We need anecdotal information."
Waiter, There''s an Endangered Species in My Soup
The main threat to pelagic shark populations in the Pacific Ocean, according to research by the OWC and other groups, is the sickening fishing practice known as "finning," in which a shark''s fins are lopped off and sold, primarily for making shark-fin soup. Typically, the rest of the shark is tossed back in the water to die.
Only the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada have some regulations on shark fishing. Otherwise, there are no federal or international rules. The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees the problem on the U.S. West Coast, where finning is still legal in federal waters (3-200 miles offshore), although it is prohibited in California state waters. Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling to end shark finning in all U.S. waters.
Although rarely seen, a wide variety of pelagic sharks do live and hunt off our waters. Basking sharks, blues, big eye threshers, longfin makos, Great Whites, and salmon sharks have been spotted.
"Monterey Bay is important to shark research because it''s something of a crossroads for some species which are hard to track down," says Wilmot. "In this area, pelagic sharks almost become coastal sharks because the deep, open water here is so close, in the deep canyon."
Research by the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz proves especially useful for Monterey Bay. The group holds the world record for tagging--or marking for research--81 basking sharks in the bay since 1990. Nowhere else on the West Coast have baskers been tagged. The group is also involved with the shark project at Ano Nuevo Island, a frequent haunt of Great White sharks that have enjoyed protected status in California since 1994.
According to a National Audubon Society report released last October, California accounted for about 12 percent of U.S. Pacific shark landings, about 1.2 million pounds--a relatively small amount, considering the state''s extensive coastline. Protection-wise, California has led the way, with shark-specific regulations since the mid-1980s.
The news for Hawaii is not so good, where shark killing has increased an astonishing 2,500 percent since 1991, with a total of 36 percent of all shark landings for the entire U.S. More than 98 percent are killed for their fins alone in Hawaii, according to the Audubon Society''s report.
Another big problem conference attendees discussed is bycatch, the unintentional--though not always unwitting--capture of sharks when other types of sealife are being hunted, such as tuna with nets or swordfish with longlines. Researchers estimate that the majority of sharks caught throughout the world are bycatch victims.
So what can people who aren''t marine biologists do to help save the sharks? Here''s a start. Contact:
-- Ocean Wildlife Campaign at (516) 859-5261 or on the Web www.audubon.org/campaign/lo/ow.
-- National Coalition for Marine Conservation at www.savethefish.org.
-- Pelagic Shark Research Foundation at www.pelagic.org.