If you are one of the lovely people who have been reading my blog for over a year, you will know that I have deep concerns about the sustainability of the ocean’s health, and with it, its inhabitants.
Today I’d like to talk about sharks.
Why does does the future of sharks concern me? My main issue is that sharks are being killed mostly as bycatch. Their lives are being wasted, the health of the ocean compromised simply because fishing companies have not come up with a better way to catch only the fish they are targeting. So many sharks (and rays) are being killed as bycatch that today around 25% of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. To ban shark finning is one thing, but if sharks continue to be caught as bycatch, have we done any good?
Sharks were not on my list to talk about at the time I was researching for my next post on Sustain the Sea. They did not hit high on my radar because I did not know about the issues surrounding them. I was going to talk about tuna, until I stumbled across some very revealing information during my research that indicates a strong connection between sharks and tuna.
I figure that many people do know about the concerns around sharks and why fishing companies should be acting more responsibly in the way they harvest from the ocean. If you do want a quick update, have a look at this info sheet from the New Zealand Shark Alliance. It addresses New Zealand concerns around sharks in particular, but these issues are not just limited to New Zealand. Some of you may be wondering why I’m addressing this issue when it seems the party is already over – lots of countries are banning shark finning, including New Zealand right? Well… read on and find out more.
To rewind to the point where my interest in sharks began: I came across this short video. It’s a fascinating presentation from a researcher for the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, an organisation that appears to be making very genuine efforts to introduce sustainable practices into the tuna fishing industry.
What I did not know until I started this research is that certain species of fish love to aggregate under large floating objects. This includes tuna and some species of shark. The fishing industry has capitalised on this trait and created Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs). FADs assist in the capture of up to 40% of the world’s tuna take. Unfortunately, not only are sharks taken by the nets that then come along to scoop up the tuna, but they are also ensnared in the netted structures that hold these FADs in place. The conservative kill rate for accidental entanglement is estimated at between 500,000 to one million sharks in the Indian ocean alone (see link for more information).
This infographic from the ISS Foundation is a stark illustration of how many sharks are killed from tuna fishing around the world.
It’s not just FADs that catch sharks though. The Shark Trust provides a comprehensive outline of how commercial fishing practices ensnare enormous amounts of bycatch, in which sharks are included. It is estimated in a recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (a study involving the collaboration of over 300 experts from 64 nations) that over 100,000,000 sharks (that’s 100 million) are killed every year. Because of this extensive slaughter, 25% of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction due to overfishing. Tuna fishing is strongly implicated as one of the main reasons why sharks are caught.
The question pounding in my head after reading the research I have linked to you was: how do we stop the accidental capture of sharks? Unfortunately due to the lucrative returns that can be obtained from the sale of shark fins, and from what I can see (and I hope I am wrong), no penalties exist for capturing sharks, this bycatch is not unwelcomed by fishing companies. There is therefore not a lot of incentive not to catch sharks. Preventing sharks from being finned alive at sea is one thing, but if we can prevent them from being captured at all, isn’t that a better solution? It also occurs to me that banning the sale of fins is not going to prevent the sharks from being captured in the first place, and then dumped back into the ocean dead, or brought to shore as the case may be, unless more accurate methods of fishing are employed.
I used to think tuna with its “dolphin friendly” logo was a good thing, and it made me feel okay about buying it. Not any more. Perhaps we should be looking for tins of tuna with “shark friendly” on them as well?
The good news is that a lot of research is being made made to reduce bycatch. Also have a good look at the ISS website in particular to find what resolutions have been made in relation to tuna fishing. This link will take you to the Summary of Resolutions taken by participating companies. Those fishing companies are to be applauded for joining the organisation and introducing these moves. I notice only one New Zealand fishing company on that list.
Will I be eating tuna in future? The answer is still no. Not until I know for certain that tuna stocks are being managed sustainably, and that my serve of tuna does not come with a figurative side of shark. And in addition to avoiding shark fin soup, I will also be looking more closely at things I buy for bywords for shark product.
In tribute to the shark, watch out for tomorrow’s free pattern release of my salute to the shark: Selachimorpha.
Please note that the thoughts above are my personal “key” conclusions, and I have not attempted to comprehensively address the issues – it would take a much longer article than what I have written!