Afterword: Why Protect Sharks Today?

When I was 12 and living in Pickerington, Ohio, nobody loved fishing more than I did. My buddy and I would risk getting shot or arrested by climbing over fences at night and sneaking across cow pastures, searching for those bass and catfish ponds that always seemed to be on private property. I was so drawn to hooking the "big one," that I know I was as addicted to fishing as the wino is to his Mad Dog 20/20.

When my family moved back to our home state of Florida and settled into Clewiston, I was still crazy about fishing. But one day at the age of 15, while I was fighting a mud fish I had just hooked, something clicked inside my head. I realized for the first time that the fish I was fighting wasn't having nearly as good a time as I was. I am greatly enjoying this, I thought, while he is struggling for his very life. I didn't quit fishing immediately, but after that realization, I gradually lost interest in the sport of fishing. There just seemed to be something fundamentally wrong when a creature like myself, capable of respect and compassion, could find entertainment in forcing pain and suffering onto another innocent creature.

Still, I loved to eat fish, and thought nothing of sinking my teeth into a finely cooked fillet of Cajun-style catfish, deep-sea grouper or other fish straight from the grocery store ice bins. I didn't like the notion of fish suffering on my account even for food, but logic told me that those fish were going to have to die if I was going to continue living. So I never looked back. Until now.

If there was just a few million of us to consider feeding in the world, I suppose I could pretty much eat what I wanted without having to worry about my food supply dwindling. But there are now 6 billion of us out there with energy and growth requirements that demand we eat at least 3 times a day. And we don't all look at the world's food supply through the same eyes. Not only are there inequities in the distribution of food globally, but in the way those who have access or control of the food relate to it as a resource.

Commercial fishermen, like all of us, are trying to make a living. They make their money catching and selling fish. Some commercial fishermen are responsible in their professions, never over-fishing a species, while others give no thought as to what their actions cause when added together with the actions of a million other commercial fishermen.

As fish populations have declined, more fishermen have entered the profession, and the competition for the fewer remaining fish has increased. In the last half of the 20th century, technology has outfitted these professions with far better tools to do their job. Sonar, radar, satellite-assisted fish finding, ships with built-in factories that can spend months at sea, and nets--some stretching for miles--are placing even greater pressures on our oceans' once plentiful bounties. Atlantic salmon, Newfoundland and New England cod, halibut, haddock, flounder, tuna, Atlantic swordfish and marlin are just a few species that have been effected.

Shark populations too, are in decline, including the great white, dusky, black-tip, sandbar tiger, whale shark, hammerhead, lemon and spiney dogfish. With dogfish sharks and others, often only the fin is taken for use as a supposed medicinal remedy and in traditional Chinese cooking. Fins can fetch up to $200 per U.S. pound for Asian markets, which promotes strong financial incentives for fishermen. Finning is now banned in many parts of the world, including the U.S. and Australia. Although shark meat is eaten, it is expensive and difficult to preserve -- and of relatively low value compared to tuna and other catch. So the fins are usually removed and the shark is thrown back, to either bleed to death or drown. Most of the shark is wasted.

There also is a growing demand for modern shark teeth, skin, cartilage and liver oil for such uses as health products, tourist trinkets, abrasives, cosmetics and lubricants. A fossilized two-inch great white shark tooth sells for approximately $20-25 U.S. A modern version of the same tooth can fetch upwards of $350-$400, placing even more pressures on fishermen to go after these magnificent creatures.

In 1979, 300,000 pounds of sharks were caught. In the 1980s, government agencies encouraged shark fishing as an 'under-utilized' source of fine-tasting, nutritionally-valuable meat. Fax numbers were even handed out for shark fin dealers. By 1989, the figure leapt to 16 million pounds. Today, an estimated 100 million sharks are being killed per year. However, the actual catch is far greater than this. Most sharks are caught as by-catch in other fisheries and are poorly recorded.

Add to the shark's plight, the fact that they infrequently reproduce, have long gestation periods and relatively few pups. In the same way that there are few lions compared to their prey of zebras, the sharks' prey greatly outnumber the sharks themselves.

One sign of depleted shark populations in Florida is the increase in stingrays. Hammerhead sharks would normally keep the stingray population in check, but fewer hammerheads mean an increase in rays. Australia faces a similar problem. Because there are fewer sharks, lobster-eating octopuses have proliferated, greatly reducing lobster populations. Without tiger sharks in Australian waters, dugongs and sea turltes would over-populate and over-graze, wiping out seagrasses.

If ever there was a law as sound as Newton's Law of Gravity, it is the Law of Interconnect-ability. That is, nothing occurs in isolation, from the blooming of the tiniest flower to the constant expansion of our vast Universe. Everything is interconnected. One link in the chain of life cannot be removed without it affecting countless other links. Some links matter very little, while others can have an enormous impact. For example, when wolves were removed from the wild, deer multiplied and began consuming entire forests.

It should come as no surprise then, that when we remove the majority of sharks from various marine ecosystems, the effects are widely felt. Sharks may not be the most important fish in the ocean, but as one of the oldest, they have certainly evolved into a species that many other marine life forms revolve around. So the effects of their losses are more noticeable.

Some critics believe that whether we're talking about sharks or some other fish (even some terrestrial animal) we're not managing wildlife properly when we focus on individual species shortages rather than the health of entire ecosystems. Over-fishing is the largest direct threat to sharks, but habitat degradation brought on by development, as well as pollution, may pose a more serious long-term threat. As the world becomes smaller because of a continuing increase in human populations and advances in technology, global cooperation may be the only way of ensuring earth's oceans remain healthy, and food resources become more evenly and fairly distributed.

Here are some things we can do to ensure viable shark and other marine life populations:


Pay attention when buying seafood. Is the species you're about to purchase in decline? If so, don't buy it. Mention to your grocer -- diplomatically -- what the problem is. Ask him to consider changing his buying habits. Talk to at least one of your close neighbors and let them know how much you love seafood, but that regretably, you don't feel right purchasing certain species. Gently debate them if you have to, but at the very least, discuss it. Be a good listener too. They just might have more insight into the matter than you do. But with a little luck, you may have a convert. Use e-mail to talk to a handful of your closest friends about the same subject. Get them thinking about their purchasing habits with regard to seafood.

Sport fishing -- I've got to admit, it's one heck of a lot of fun. But are the fish really enjoying it too? Do they appear highly stressed and in a great deal of pain? If that argument doesn't sway you, how about the species for which you are fishing? Are they thriving or low in numbers? Check with a government agency or organization you trust and see which species are in trouble.


1) Financially support organizations that you feel confident are doing a responsible job of trying to protect sharks. Again, be as a good a listener as you are a talker.

2) Volunteer for one of those organizations


Respectfully suggest that policy-makers be far-sighted rather than near-sighted, and that they consider the long-term sustainability of sharks and other marine life when making local or global decisions. Habitat loss brought on by development or pollution is also a serious threat to marine life, and should be taken into consideration when developers apply for permits. Industries (as well as individuals) should try to look beyond their "bottom line" to think of the long-term sustainability of humans and all life forms.

If you are influential on an international level, diplomatically encourage other countries to do their part as well. Explain to them what you are personally doing, and what the U.S. as a nation is willing to do (providing we're willing to do it). Ask if they would be willing to make positive changes too.

SIDEBAR: In the best of worlds, tourists who dive to observe sharks "up close and personal" would do so without feeding or otherwise interacting with the sharks. But it may be far better for divers to interact with sharks on a regular basis only slightly disrupting their normal activities -- than for others to catch and kill the same sharks for immediate profit. A single shark may be worth several hundred dollars dead, but alive through dive tourism the same shark may be worth thousands per year.

SIDEBAR: The Florida panther, Siberian tiger and African elephant are often referred to as "glamour species", because these animals move us emotionally more than other animals that may be equally deserving of our protection. Florida wood rats, Eastern-blue Indigo snakes and great white sharks do not fit the definition of glamorous. But in terms of providing a link in the chain of life, their role may be every bit as important. Be an equal opportunity conservationist.


Extinctions 'r' us

So far, Earth has undergone five mass extinctions of great numbers of life forms in the last four billion years. Most were the result of a natural course of evolution in which simpler organisms changed into more complex life forms. Others vanished as the result of major uncontrollable forces such as meteor impacts, volcanoes, or periodic tilting of the earth's axis. Each of these forces would have caused drastic changes in Earth's climate, which in turn would effect food sources and the ability of all living things to adapt.

Today's extinctions are also influencing climatic changes. We humans, by destruction of habitat, pollution, deforestation, over-fishing and just abusing the natural world in general, are directly controlling the present rates of extinction. Ecologists estimate that we have lost hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species in the past 50 years. We run the risk of losing one-half of all living species within the next century.

We are the only species in Earth's history cognizant of our ability to influence every other life form in a positive or negative way. Take American alligators. After surviving for over 150 million years, we nearly wiped them out in the 1960s. But we then protected the huge reptiles and placed them on the Endangered species list for a couple of decades. Now they number several million and are found in 11 states.

We are such a contrasting species. Smart, dumb. Evil, good. Giving, greedy. Caring, ruthless. The problem, the solution.

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