The billion $ shark

Shark biologist and freediver Riley Elliott reveals his personal shark story, his connection with mako sharks and why it is critical the species achieves increased protection at the upcoming CITES conference.

Words by Riley Elliott
Photographs by Shawn Heinrichs

What are mako sharks worth? It’s an almost impossible question to answer. These days, particularly in conservation, it’s important to quantify something in economic terms. Emotion only gets you so far. It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in. Without a value, many people fail to see a reason to conserve. In the case of the mako, it’s true value comes not from its own flesh, but for what it does in the ecosystem it exists within. Mako sharks are the major predator for many tuna species. Science has demonstrated that the absence of an evolutionarily significant predator can result in trophic cascade and a collapse in population structure, often of the prey species. If the global mako shark population were to collapse – which it is on course to do without immediate intervention – there is a real and serious possibility it will adversely affect tuna stocks. So what are mako sharks truly worth? Due to the critical role they play in maintaining certain tuna stocks’ health in what is a global USD $42 billion industry, the answer, in quantifiable terms, is likely billions of dollars.

For many, of course, makos are priceless, their value unquantifiable. A beautiful apex predator that has evolved over millions of years simply cannot be summed up in only monetary terms. As a shark biologist and freediver, I agree with that sentiment, but I also recognise the importance of numbers in generating action. For people disconnected with the ocean (including decision-makers who work within government), the loss of a shark species might not register as a globally significant issue; the potential decline of a multi-billion dollar industry on the other hand… that’s something everyone understands.

Whether your focus is ecology or economy, the conclusion is the same: mako sharks need protection. The good news is that the international community will soon be presented with an opportunity to do exactly that, by legislating against global trade in the species – the primary factor in its continued population decline. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), a United Nations body of some 180-member nations, will shortly convene (August, 2019) to discuss awarding the mako shark an Appendix II listing. Such a listing would recognise that “trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with [a species’] survival”. Given that CITES is the only international treaty with binding provisions upon member nations to protect threatened and endangered species from unsustainable trade in their body parts, the listing would represent a huge victory for the mako. It is moments like this that photographer Shawn Heinrichs and I have spent a great deal of our professional lives working towards. Our desire to protect sharks comes from a position of understanding – an understanding, we hope, that will have been communicated effectively to CITES decision-makers (in conjunction with countless other ocean scientists and conservationists) via an expansive media campaign in the run-up to the conference. Through connecting people with the biggest issues facing our ocean, including the facts around specific issues such as that of the mako shark, those in power can create change from positions of understanding. It’s a process – and one I am all too familiar with, as someone who once misunderstood sharks and their importance to this planet.

I’ve always been a keen waterman. While marine science is now my focus, it was once surfing. As a young kid surfing off New Zealand’s south coast city of Dunedin – great white territory – sharks terrified me. My relationship with sharks – all sharks – was one of complete fear. Like so many people of my generation (and the generation before me), I had been impacted by the era-defining cultural wrecking ball that was JAWS. Every time I hit the surf, as far as I understood it, I was getting in the water with monsters. I was rolling the dice. Then, one day, while in the remote Fiordland region of New Zealand completing some fieldwork for my marine biology degree, I had a shark encounter that would change my life.

Fiordland is a wild place. Deep, abyssal waters twist and turn through towering peaks. I was actually studying dolphins at the time, but encountered a shark while in the water. As it powered up from the deep, I panicked and jumped to safety. It was only then that I realised the shark was just a foot long. In that moment I realised that I – along with much of society – had a serious problem with how I perceived sharks. I realised I knew nothing about them, and I wanted to change that.

I was brought up to be inquisitive, to question things, and to find things out for myself. My father was an academic and would use his sizeable vocabulary around the dinner table. On each instance we didn’t understand a word he had used, he would insist we get down from the table, pull out the dictionary and enlighten the room. It was a lesson in the value of commitment and persistence in obtaining factual knowledge from the source. It shaped me as a person, as a would-be PhD student and, in that singular moment in Fiordland, as someone who wanted to better understand something I suddenly realised I knew precious little about. Those dictionary days played a significant role in me becoming a shark scientist. Fate played a part too. When I returned from Fiordland to university, I spotted an advert for an internship to Oceans Research in South Africa. The internship was to study great white sharks. I had to go.

The first time I saw a great white (from a boat), I was fascinated but terrified. It breached on a seal – in a demonstration of incredible speed and power – but to my horror, adjacent to the area I had started surfing. The process of learning, of understanding the science behind shark behaviour, had started straight away. I was told sharks are more active at dawn and dusk and that while the sun is up they often reside below us surfers, in the waves, but for the purpose of digesting food through increased oxygen flow through white-water. I realised they could, if they chose to, attack surfers relentlessly, but were far more calculated than that. By the end of my first day, those man-eating perceptions were falling away fast. As time went by, I wanted to push beyond knowledge, into experience. I wanted to get in the water with the sharks we were studying, my life now fully on a new path. Freediving offered me an opportunity to do that.

It would be these skills that would enable me, years later, to slip beneath the waterline and dive with some of the biggest, wildest makos ever photographed – those you see on these pages, captured by Shawn. Freediving has been the medium that has allowed me to effectively communicate science and research to a wider audience. The three days I spent in the water with Shawn were no different, allowing us to shape a visual story that would sit alongside powerful facts and figures to – hopefully – better protect the mako. Knowledge combined with an emotional connection is as powerful a change-making cocktail as there is. We had the material to engage.

The establishment of a connection between reader/ viewer and the shark is the objective, but the in-water connection on those particular dives was extra special. In his many years photographing sharks around the world, Shawn had only ever seen dead makos, their carcasses piled by the thousands on boats or in illegal fish markets. Nature put on a special show for us on this occasion.

“Those days with the mako sharks are honestly some of the most memorable of my life,” says Shawn. “The sharks approached our vessel fast and furious, frenetic with their jaws agape, creating the impression that one would have to be crazy to enter the water! But patience and understanding prevailed, and with experience and guidance, we dropped into the water and I finally met the king of the pelagic realm. Any remnants of that primal fear immediately transformed into a deep respect and appreciation. This shark was highly intelligent, curious yet cautious, not seeking to harm but rather establish her territory and discern whether we were predators or prey. Quickly recognising we were neither, she accepted us, becoming more at ease with each pass and allowing us to interact with her for hours.

Photographs by Shawn Heinrichs

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This feature appears in ISSUE 08: The billion $ shark of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Eight
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