Mako protection cannot wait
James Glancy is a director at conservation charity Veterans For Wildlife, working to stop illegal wildlife trade worldwide. A passionate shark advocate since childhood he is now a host on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. James previously served as an officer in the Royal Marines.
When I learned to dive in Florida in 1994 we saw two bull sharks within minutes of entering the water. At just 14 years old, the experience was mesmerising and inspired me into a maritime career in the Royal Marines followed by wildlife and shark conservation. Like so many charismatic animal species, sharks are part of our popular culture, starring in children’s cartoons, literature, popular movies and the Discovery channel even has a dedicated ‘Shark Week’. Today’s generation of young divers are far less likely to see one of nature’s most perfectly evolved apex predators. Our ocean, like so much of our wilderness on land, is now suffering a devastating biodiversity loss that is potentially more catastrophic than climate change. With many of the more than four hundred species of shark now rated as endangered, critically endangered or facing extinction, is it too late to save sharks?
Accurate data for shark numbers is incredibly difficult to measure, however it is widely estimated that shark populations have declined between 60-95% globally over the past 40 years. This decline is overwhelmingly driven by industrialised commercial fishing. Sharks are caught as bycatch or deliberately targeted for their fins, meat, liver oil and skin. In some areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, oceanic whitetip numbers have declined by 99%. Other pelagic species such as the Mako shark are now suffering similar declines, with Atlantic Ocean populations now on the brink of collapse. New evidence in a Nature report compiled by more than 150 scientists, has shown that major longline fisheries target hotspots for a variety of shark species. The biggest longline vessels can deploy up to 100 kilometres of lines with thousands of hooks. The situation is so bleak that scientists have pushed the earliest possible recovery of Mako populations in the North Atlantic to 2045. The fasted shark in the sea, the Mako shark, is now in need of urgent protection.
Unlike other charismatic animals such as elephants, rhinos or tigers, all of which have also suffered serious population declines, the plight of sharks is less visible to the public, but no less important. Sharks play a critical role in the ecology of our oceans, by maintaining the species below them in the food chain and shifting their prey’s spatial habitat. Their role at the top of the food web supports healthy reef systems and indirectly maintains sea grass and other ocean habitats, ensuring species diversity. The removal of large numbers of sharks has a drastic effect on marine ecosystems and leads to the collapse of fisheries.
Healthy oceans are critical for the planet and humanity. More than 3 billion people globally rely on fish as a source of protein. As the world’s population grows, it’s critical that we now take action to protect sharks and all marine creatures from overfishing. The creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have demonstrated that shark populations can recover. In the Pacific Ocean, Palau and Raja Ampat created MPAs after years of intensive fishing destroyed shark and fish populations. I was fortunate enough to film a documentary in Palau for Discovery channel this year and was overwhelmed by the healthy corals and rich diversity of marine life.
Palau created the world’s first shark sanctuary and consequently it has healthy populations of sharks and rays. Fisherman have reported increased catches in the waters around the sanctuary, demonstrating that protecting areas has a positive spill over effect that benefits fishing. Protecting sharks has proven to have a positive economic effect in Palau and also in in the Bahamas, by attracting large numbers of tourists and divers. It’s estimated a single ref shark is worth USD $250,000 as a result of dive tourism compared to USD $50 when caught and sold by a fisherman. The largest fish in the sea, a whale shark is thought to be worth more than USD $2million over its lifetime to the economy of Belize. Sharks are not just a keystone species for the ecosystem, but have proven economic value when alive.
Sharks have ruled the oceans for millions of years, yet time is no longer on their side. International organisations and government’s must take strong action to create more marine protected areas and conserve shark species and improve regulation. Governments can sign up and implement the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s pledge to protect 30% of each ecoregion, allowing marine life to recover to its former state. Robust fisheries management creating sustainable fisheries need to be implemented by regions responsible for the largest global catches. The European Union for example, has a responsibility to ban the catch of Mako sharks by European national fleets in the Mediterranean, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, reducing the chance of extinction in these regions. The forthcoming CITIES summit has the opportunity to list even more elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) for greater protection.
Beyond governments and international organisations, it also down to individuals to take decisive and bold action to protect sharks. Responsibility lies with the consumer not to buy or eat shark products and insist their fish comes from sustainable sources. Sharks are not the monsters commonly portrayed in the movies, they are a beautifully evolved cornerstone species of the underwater world, who are not only majestic to witness on a dive, but regulate ecosystems that feed the world. We can all play a part in their protection to ensure future generations enjoy one of the most iconic animals on Earth.
This column appears in ISSUE 8: The billion $ shark of Oceanographic Magazine
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