Racing extinction

Shark biologist Riley Elliott
Photographer Shawn Heinrichs

Time is running out for the fastest shark in the ocean.

On the eve of this year’s Shark Week – and a few weeks ahead of a critical international conference where governments have the opportunity to better protect the Mako – Oceanographic Magazine speaks with two men fighting for the survival of the species: shark biologist Riley Elliott and conservation photographer Shawn Heinrichs.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Riley, what first inspired you to start studying – and diving with – sharks?

Riley Elliott (RE): To put it simply and honestly – fear. As a surfer, with only JAWS as an ‘education’, like most people, I was afraid of sharks. After my first interaction with a harmless one-foot-long shark that sent me running for the hills, I asked myself: “What is the shark? And is the fear justified?” Fear is real. We shouldn’t run away from its presence. We need to face it, understand why it’s there and address it.

OM: How do you help people move from that fear to a position of fascination?

RE: I say to people that you should feel fear when it comes to sharks. However, that fear should not be responded to with malice or hatred, rather respect. Sharks are incredible apex predators. The statistics prove they aren’t out there to hunt us. But unless you face the ‘boogieman’, the ‘under the bed’ unknown, we will continue to drive that fear in the wrong direction. To avoid that negligent naivety we need to be presented with fact, just like mum or dad did for you, when they made you look under the bed.

Personally, I went to the source. I wanted to find out what the shark was. That’s what turned my fear into a fascination. I learnt that sharks didn’t want to hunt me. They have existed longer than any other vertebrate on Earth. They are the doctors and garbage men of the sea. They maintain predator pressure on fish stocks to keep everything in balance. They have never had significant predators, and thus have very slow reproduction rates, which mean they simply cannot handle exploitation.

Upon ‘looking under the bed’ for sharks, the real fear was that we have been disrespecting a vital character of our ocean for too long. When you register that this animal literally ensures ocean function – the beating heart of our planet – the fear shifts, and it becomes clear that immediate correction on a global perspective is required.

OM: Shawn, how important a role does photography play in reshaping people’s attitudes towards sharks?

Shawn Heinrichs (SH): Historically, mainstream media has not been kind to sharks, portraying them as mindless man-eaters, monsters of the deep and ruthless predators to be feared. This highly inaccurate portrayal has fuelled a widespread irrational fear of sharks which has, in turn, resulted in apathy towards their plight. The truth is, sharks have far more to fear from us, than we from them. On average, six people die from shark bites each year compared to 100 million sharks slaughtered annually by humans. Sharks are naturally cautious animals and do their best to avoid humans. They can be curious and yes, they are formidable in their role as apex predators, but they are in no way seeking out humans as prey. Photography can play such a critical role in reshaping public perceptions about sharks by highlighting their beauty and magnificence, their curiosity and vulnerability. It can also shine a spotlight on the massive global exploitation that is driving many of their species to the brink of extinction.

OM: You’re both currently working for better protection of Mako sharks at the upcoming CITES meeting in Geneva. How is that work progressing and what are you hoping to achieve?

SH: Across the oceans, Mako shark populations are in serious trouble. These open ocean predators primarily hunt pelagic species such as tuna and marlin, species that are highly valued and intensively targeted by industrial fishing fleets. Mako sharks are in constant interaction with international tuna long-line and gill net fisheries, and they are frequently caught as by-catch. In recent decades, these fisheries have caused populations to plummet.

Mako shark fins are also highly prized in Asian shark fin markets, and their meat is among the more valued of shark meats. Though the majority of the Mako sharks caught in long-line gear are still alive when brought aboard the vessels, demand for their prized fins and meat drives commercial fishermen to choose not to release them but rather kill and retain them. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a United Nations body of some 180-member nations, is the only international treaty with binding provisions upon member nations to protect threatened and endangered species from unsustainable trade in their body parts. International trade in sharks and rays has led to huge population declines around the globe. A CITES Appendix II listing would offer the management and protection that Makos need to survive and recover.

RE: As a shark biologist, it’s obvious what needs to be achieved. There’s no emotion in science, it’s just fact. Mako shark reproduction means it cannot handle exploitation levels currently employed on a global scale. A female takes more than 20 years to become mature, then has only 6-10 pups every 18 months. Science has observed global numbers declining and population size/age bell curves reducing. If these patterns continue, collapse is guaranteed. So, the question of hope should be adjusted to simply: Do we want Mako sharks to continue to exist? If so, we must cease the current exploitation of them.

OM: Riley, you and Shawn recently spent some particularly memorable days in the water with Makos, capturing some stunning imagery. Tell us a little more.

RE: I am not going to sugar coat this, as if I am some kind of ‘shark whisperer’. Sharks, especially Mako sharks are a wild animal and very capable of inflicting serious harm. The point is, I come out of these scenarios unscathed. So why take the risk?

To pivot the fear. To show the beauty and the beast and acknowledge that we are the beast. Even in the face of likely the scariest looking and most unpredictable shark to swim with, they do not play the JAWS card at all. When you enable this portrayal, and lace in some scientific fact, we can change how we perceive even our greatest fear.

To put it simply, as Jacques Cousteau once said: “We only protect what we love, we only love what we understand, and we only understand what we are taught”.

This is exactly why we swam with the Mako those days.

Mako shark, Shawn Heinrichs, New Zealand, CITES

OM: Shawn, what made those days so spectacular for you, both as a conservationist and a photographer?

SH: I have been a diver for almost three decades, and during that time I have had been blessed to interact with and photograph many of the most charismatic shark species in the oceans. However, one shark had always alluded me, the king of the pelagic realm, one of the most awesome of all the large predatory sharks – the Mako! And I must admit, though I have spent countless hours in open water with some of the most feared sharks, including tiger sharks, bull sharks, oceanic white tips, and even great whites, there was something about the fastest shark in all the oceans, with its jagged teeth protruding from its powerful jaw, a formidable predator that can rip a massive marlin to shreds in moments, that tugged at some deep and unresolved primal fear that remained buried inside me.

My only interactions with Mako sharks had been with dead ones. From South and Central America, to the Pacific, to Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean, I had documented the demise of these iconic predators by the hands of commercial fisheries. In Japan I documented hundreds of Mako sharks unloaded in a single port on a single day, and most of these sharks were clearly juveniles. In Hong Kong and China, shark fin traders enthusiastically boasted how valuable Mako fins where to their trade, noting that their value had only increased as the fins had become ever more scarce. It was clear to me from my investigations that Mako sharks were in serious trouble, and the scientific data was in clear support.

When it was announced that Mako sharks had been proposed for listing on CITES, I jumped at the opportunity to tell their story and use imagery and storytelling as a powerful tool to help secure their protection. This was my opportunity to finally give a voice to these vulnerable animals that I had so often documented on the blood-soaked floors of commercial fishing ports. And, this was also my opportunity to finally come face-to-face with a shark that had eluded me for almost three decades, to interact on its terms in its habitat, and to learn in the most personal way, the true nature of this incredible species.

Wasting no time, I reached out to Riley, a guy whom I had met just once before, but who I immediately recognised as an expert in interacting with Makos, and deeply passionate about conserving them. My gut just told me this was the guy to work with. The days I spent with Riley and the Mako sharks are honestly some of the most memorable of my life. 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 Riley’s 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. In the days that followed we interacted with at least a dozen Makos, ranging in size from juvenile at 1.5 metres to a massive mature female of some 3.5 metres! Each and every interaction was both powerful and memorable and in the process, I personally felt like I reached a new level of understanding and appreciation for sharks, and together we succeeded in capturing some of the most inspiring shark imagery of my career.

OM: Riley, you’re authoring the lead story in Issue 08 of Oceanographic, an article about the majesty of Makos and the perils they face. Why are Mako sharks so special, so important for the health of our oceans and what are the key threats they face?

RE: I think it’s critical to quantify the importance of something, in this modern age, as a commodity, rather than an emotive value. It’s sad but that’s the reality of our societal function these days.

The Mako needs to be valued for what it does in the ecosystem it exists within. Without that value, there is no requirement to conserve it. So, here’s your dose of simple science for the day: Tuna contributes USD $42 billion to the global economy per year, making it the world’s most valuable fish. Mako sharks are the major predator of most tuna species. Science has proven that the absence of an evolutionary existing predator results in trophic cascade, a collapse in population structure and presence, even of the prey species, the tuna.

So, what’s the value of protecting Mako sharks? A USD $42 billion tuna industry.

Mako shark, New Zealand, CITES, Shawn Heinrich's, Riley Elliott

OM: Shawn, what impact do you hope your images have on CITES delegates?

SH: If you have not spent time in the company of sharks, especially large ‘predatory’ sharks, it is hard to let go of the irrational fear that media has fuelled for so long. People protect what they love, and how do we expect delegates, many of whom may either fear or even despise sharks, to rally behind a proposal to protect them? We need to turn that fear into understanding, that hatred into compassion. Armed with science and striking imagery we can do that. We can reveal the true nature of these sharks and the urgent need to conserve them.

The imagery we captured presents these sharks as they truly are, incredible beings of evolutionary perfection, hundreds of millions of years in the making, perfectly adapted apex predators that regulate the health of the pelagic realm. Our imagery and story focuses on the truth about these animals – curious yet cautious, powerful but not menacing, beautiful specimens in shape and form, elegant in every moment. But we also tell the story of their suffering, the serious threats they face, and the truth about the fisheries and international trade that are driving their populations to the brink. And from this, we reveal how a CITES listing can be a powerful mechanism to ensure that populations of Mako sharks survive and recover.

OM: Beyond CITES, how would you like to see Makos better protected, and who should be taking a lead on that?

RE: CITES protection can act as a catalyst for individual nations to implement their own protection measures. We have seen this for other species post CITES protection. This becomes the mortar to CITES bricks. New Zealand is my home country. It’s supposed to be 100% pure, yet we are still allowing shark finning by the act of fin to body weight ratios. It’s abhorrent and contradictory to good management in my eyes, as the Mako is likely the most valuable for flesh. If New Zealand doesn’t take up this opportunity to help lead the world, given we have likely the best Mako population left on the planet, then we may reach a tipping point for this species.

Mako shark, New Zealand, CITES, Shawn Heinrichs

OM: Of course, it isn’t just Mako shark numbers that are declining. Shark populations are being decimated worldwide. How hopeful are you both that we can turn the tide and return to ocean to an abundant, bountiful ecosystem?

SH: Extinction stops when we decide enough is enough and that we will no longer be complicit in the global crisis that is driving the loss of keystone species. There is still so much left in the oceans that are worth standing up for, but time is running out. The oceans have proven to be incredibly resilient, if only we just give it the time and protection needed to recover. In a time of extreme global environmental crisis, it is the choices we make now, to either cower in despair or to rise and stand together in defence of Mother Nature, that will decide the future or our natural world. We are not apart from nature, but rather an integral part of nature, and we must embrace this truth, heal our hearts, and extend deep compassion to all beings that share this world with us. It is time we join together and take a decisive stand for nature, for the health of our planet, and for the future of all species on Earth.

RE: I think we all realise the issues in front of us these days. Naivety is no longer an excuse. We know a plastic wrapper ends up in an ocean gyre. It doesn’t just ‘disappear’. We know that sharks are an integral part of ocean health. The public are aware and support positive change. However, it is government and lobbying corporations who seemingly dictate policy. Unless policy prioritises ecological benefit over short term shareholder return, we will not achieve what is required for our own survival. CITES is a bridge for that transition. It’s a global agreement that empowers scientific and public opinion, creating the necessary force for legislative trade within governments. This needs to happen now for Mako sharks; if not for them, then for our own selfish interests for a piece of sushi.

Organisations including SeaLegacy, Blue Sphere Foundation, Vulcan Inc and Project AWARE (where you can sign a petition) are supporting an unprecedented push with key nations to gain the two-thirds majority needed to ensure Mako sharks are listed on Appendix II at CITES.

‘The billion dollar shark’, a story by Riley Elliott and Shawn Heinrichs, is the cover story of Issue 08, out now

Photographer Shawn Heinrichs