To mark a decade since the international plan to conserve sharks was approved by members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the report “The Future of Sharks: A Review of Action and Inaction” has been released to highlight the progress. Unfortunately, the report notes that the international plan was not successfully implemented. The plan has made only a minor contribution to the improvement of shark conservation and management. Thirty percent of all shark species are currently either threatened or near-threatened with extinction.
A Review of Action and Inaction
Fisheries worldwide provided the data for the UN report. Using this information, the UN report identified the top 20 shark-catching countries. Top countries included Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, United States, Japan, and Malaysia. The report determined whether these countries followed through on management and conservation goals set in 2001. Only 13 of the top 20 “shark-catching” counties actually developed national plans of action to protect sharks.1 It is unclear how these national plans were implemented and whether they were effective.
The top ten countries are responsible for an annual catch of 640,000 tones of sharks, accounting for almost 80 percent of the total reported, global shark catch. It should be noted that many shark catches are not reported. The UN report only provides data that fisheries worldwide have reported, but much of the shark finning practice is done illegally in other countries, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica. Most of these fish are then exported to Asia.
Shark populations are dramatically declining in Costa Rica, despite the illegality of shark finning. Taiwanese finning ships dock at Costa Rica’s private facilities to avoid inspection by Costa Rican officials. The overfishing of sharks hurts Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Government officials and environmentalists are trying to address the problem.2
Nearly a third of all shark species are facing extinction due to unregulated fishing, mainly for their fins. It has been estimated that up to 73 million sharks are being killed each year for their fins. The fins are used as an ingredient in shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in many East Asian countries. Fin imports to Hong Kong and Taiwan rose 214 percent from 1985 to 1999, due in part to their large, growing populations and the explosion of wealth across the entire Asia Pacific.3
Along with weak to non-existent rules governing shark catches and international trade, massive overfishing has resulted to a dramatic decline in shark populations worldwide. The Global Shark Conservation manager for the Pew Environment Group, Jill Hepp, stated that where sharks have been overfished, ecosystems will fall out of balance. She noted that, “shark-catching countries and entities must stand by their commitments and act now to conserve and protect these animals.”4
Setbacks in the Fight to Protect Sharks
The Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute agreed that the private docks in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, would be closed to foreign vessels starting December 1, 2010. This agreement tried to stop the illegal practice of unloading shark fins at private docks, by requiring foreign vessels to dock at public ports instead. Unpopular to local fishermen, this measure seemed to be victory for opponents of the shark finning practice.
Costa Rican custom law actually requires the use of public infrastructure to import products. Despite the custom law, many foreign fleets used private docks where law enforcement does not have access. Without law enforcement access, imported goods can enter the country unchecked and, in this case, the result is decreased shark populations.
According to Randall Arauz, President of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, some foreign vessels cut off shark fins and throw the body of the shark overboard, leaving the shark to bleed to death. Costa Rican law states that sharks must be docked with their fins intact, but this law is often not followed due to the inability of officials to inspect foreign ships at private docks. So one easy solution is to require foreign ships to dock at public docks; this would substantially reduce illegal shark finning.5
In January 2011, a three-day, temporary injunction was issued in San Jose, Costa Rica, suspending the law requiring foreign fishing fleets to land cargo at public docks. The temporary injunction has been met with a lot of criticism from around the world. The injunction was passed because fishermen complained that public docks did not meet storage standards. While, the injunction only applied to three companies, there is nothing preventing other companies from filing similar injunction requests.
Environmental groups, which were fundamental in pressuring the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute into adopting the public dock rule, were outraged by this injunction. The February 4th timing of the injunction fell on the same day that the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry issued a press release praising the country’s efforts to end end shark finning.
Shark Populations Declining Worldwide
In recent decades, shark populations around the world have been decreasing at an alarming rate. In the United States’ east coast, scalloped hammerheads and dusky shark populations have decreased by 80 percent since the 1970s.6 In Europe’s Atlantic coast, spiny dogfish populations have decreased to ten percent of their original population size. In the Mediterranean Sea, smooth hammerheads, shortfin mako, porbeagle, and thresher shark populations have decreased by more than 97 percent.
In Kesennuma, Japan, blue sharks, which comprise 80 percent of the shark catch, have been listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to Japan’s fisheries agency, 40 years ago, Japan caught about 65,000 tons of sharks, but, by 2009, that number had almost halved to 35,000 tons, due to the recent dramatic decline in shark populations.
According to conservation groups, a growing demand for shark fins along with modern fishing methods have cause a rapid global decline in shark populations. Many top, shark-catching nations violate international regulations and under-report their catches. Fortunately, the anti shark fin soup movement is gathering momentum. Celebrity chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay, have publicly denounced the cruelty involved in finning. Several Chinese restaurants in England and the United States have completely removed the soup from their menus. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list shows that 30 percent of all shark species are either threatened or near threatened with extinction.7
An Important but Vulnerable Predator
Sharks are one of the top predators in the marine environment. Their loss can and will cause drastic and irreversible changes.8 Sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to their biological characteristics. They grow slowly, become sexually mature late in life, and produce few offspring. The removal of large sharks can adversely impact ecosystems to a large degree.
For example, research shows that declines in shark populations can contribute to a shift from healthy, coral-dominated reefs to barren, algae-dominated reefs. Furthermore, shark population declines contribute to an increase in the abundance of their prey, and can even influence prey species in non-lethal ways, such as by causing behavioral changes to prey habitat use, activity level and diet.
Apart from changes to the ecosystem, live sharks have a significant value for marine ecotourism, which is usually more sustainable and valuable than the individual shark’s value to fisheries. For example, whale shark tourism is estimated to be worth $47.5 million worldwide. Marine ecotourism includes activities such as recreational diving, shark feeding and shark watching, to name a few.9
Plans to Save Sharks
There is no doubt that many spark species are in danger of extinction due to unsustainable fishing practices. As top marine predators, these large animals help maintain balance in the marine environments. There are more than 400 species of sharks, all which play fundamental roles in the functioning of local ecosystems and economies.
Slowly, nations around the world are beginning to realize the importance of protecting sharks. The year 2010 proved to be an important year for ocean conservation, having both ups and downs. In March 2010, the international community rejected the protection of an array of marine species at the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species.
On the up side, around the same time, Maldives created a sanctuary for sharks in its waters. This sanctuary covers 35,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean. In November 2010, protective measures for eight shark species were adopted in a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Furthermore, in late 2010, the presidents of Honduras and Palau challenged other world leaders at the United Nations to join them in their efforts to ensure healthy global shark populations by establishing additional sanctuaries and ending the finning practice.
Finally, at the end of 2010, the United States Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which was signed in January of 2011 by President Barack Obama. This act promotes efforts to conserve sharks and to stop the practice of finning.10
Efforts to conserve sharks are also being made at the local level. In February 2011, California proposed a ban on selling and using shark fins. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, along with environmental groups, supports this bill, which is opposed by many in the local Asian communities.
A similar ban was passed in Hawaii, which is a big step since the federal prohibition on killing sharks for their fins, is not well enforced. State Senator Leland Yee, who’s running for mayor of San Francisco, calls the proposed bill an attack on Asian culture. The measure will soon wind its way through the city legislature.11
It has been a decade since an international plan to conserve sharks was approved by members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and not much progress have been made. Countries have not followed through with their promises and over-fishing of sharks is still an issue in many countries. Fortunately, some countries, local governments, and organizations have stepped up to raise awareness of the issue. Sharks are an extremely important factor in the marine ecosystem and a decade of failure in protecting them will hopefully urge governments and their citizens to fight for their protection and ensure they do not face extinction.
1 “Shark populations dwindle as top catchers delay on conservation actions.” Traffic. January 27, 2011.
2 “Campaign Pressures Costa Rican Government to Enforce Shark finning laws.” Inside Costa Rica Daily News.
3 Rand, Matt. “Turning the tide to protect the world’s sharks.” The Huffington Post. February 15, 2011.
4 “Shark populations dwindle as top catchers delay on conservation actions.” Traffic. January 27, 2011.
5 McDonald, Mike. “New Costa Rican Rule cracks down on illegal shark finning.” Tico Times. November 30, 2010.
6 “Shark Conservation.” The PEW Charitable Trusts.
7 “Shark fishing in Japan: A messy, blood-spattered business.” Mail and Guardian. February 12, 2011.
8 “Shark Conservation.” The PEW Charitable Trusts.
9 “Ocean Science Series: Sharks- The State of the Science.” The PEW Charitable Trusts.
10 Rand, Matt. “Turning the tide to protect the world’s sharks.” The Huffington Post. February 15, 2011.
11 Peterson, Molly. “Bill to ban shark fins introduced in Sacramento.” Southern California Public Radio. February 16,2011.