Contrary to popular belief, sharks are not preying on people as much as people are preying on sharks. Millions are harvested every year, primarily to fill a ravenous craving for shark fin soup.
Off the Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat, CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann and his colleagues spent a combined total of nearly 400 hours underwater this winter. Much to their disbelief, the group saw just three sharks.
The place is remote, wild, and beautiful and you think undisturbed, says Seligmann. But the sharks are gone, fished out by the shark finning industry.
Wildlife Trade Fueling Species Decline
Driven by an insatiable and primarily Asian market, fishing fleets are capturing sharks for their fins to create a luxury dish that is consumed more for social status than for nutritional value. The practice of finning capturing a shark, chopping off its fins, and throwing the still-live animal back into the sea to die is cause for great concern.
Slow to mature, sharks are often killed for their fins before they reach reproductive age. As some of our oceans' most dominant creatures, sharks also play a crucial role in regulating food webs that support entire ecosystems.
"Wholesale removal of top predators from ecosystems will very likely bring unexpected and undesirable problems," says Scott Henderson, CI's coordinator for the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Program. "These animals are part of a vast array of migratory marine animals that range freely across this ocean region. Its the underwater equivalent of Africas Serengeti plains."
Shark Science Guides Conservation
In the vast ocean region that stretches from Costa Rica to Ecuador, sharks still have a fighting chance. Sharks swim in abundance there, and conservationists, governments, and concerned fishermen are working hard to keep it that way.
On expeditions this spring, CI scientists and partners are continuing to examine where sharks live and how they travel, with intent to reveal where resources will stretch furthest to keep them safe. The data gleaned from tracking the whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), and Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) that roam the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS) will help inform policy-makers and tailor future conservation efforts.
Through an ambitious and highly effective collaboration among international and regional marine scientists, researchers exchange information as the sharks swim beyond a specific realm of surveillance into neighboring areas. In this way, a network of scientists is able to track the sharks every move using satellite and acoustic tags attached to individual sharks dorsal fins.
Satellite tags send signals to space-borne satellites as the sharks surface, relaying information to scientists. Acoustic tags send underwater signals when sharks pass within 500 meters of a receiving station, where data can be stored for months until a researcher dives down to retrieve it.
Sharing resources and information between UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Ecuadors Galapagos Marine Reserve, Costa Ricas Cocos Island National Park, Colombias Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, and Panamas Las Perlas and Coiba islands is undoubtedly the projects greatest success toward helping sharks.
These [sites] may be migratory stepping stones, just as you might walk from your driveway to your doorway, explains A. Peter Klimley, Ph.D., director of the Biotelemetry Laboratory at University of California-Davis and one of the first scientists to tag sharks. The issue here is an ocean-wide issue: How do we protect these species?
The Impetus for Collaboration
From the start, it was one of the most ambitious plans to ensure the conservation and wise management of marine life in the Western Hemisphere. The creation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape stemmed from a common goal among the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador to conserve current and proposed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and to sustainably manage the waters connecting them.
Ten million dollars in agreements between Conservation International (CI), the United Nations Foundation, CIs Global Conservation Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre constituted the first concrete steps to support the government-led initiative.
Governments, managers, and conservationists set their sights high for good reason. Though poorly documented, the shark fin trade is perhaps three times larger than previously estimated by the United Nations. According to a paper by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, published in the October 2006 edition of Ecology Letters, between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. Twenty percent of all sharks and their closest relatives are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
But not all countries take the same steps to alleviate that problem. In the Eastern Tropical Pacific, inconsistent policies and legislation make connectivity among research organizations and across national borders even more imperative. While all four countries prohibit cutting off shark fins and throwing remains back into the water, it remains permissible outside of marine protected areas to catch sharks as long as the entire animal is returned to shore before the fins are cut off.
Also, while Ecuador has banned the export of shark fins, Colombia and Peru still permit their export, giving rise to a contraband trade in which illegal traders transfer the fins out of Ecuador or on the high seas and export them from neighboring countries.
Researchers are certain their science will educate people about the plight of sharks, inform them about how to better conserve the species, and ultimately change people's behaviors and national policies.
The study doesnt end there, says Alex Hearn, a scientist with the Galapagos Charles Darwin Research Station. We need to work in these fields with authorities, with the people who are consuming, and with the people who are hunting sharks in order to ensure that we achieve effective conservation.