Sharks are near the top of the ocean food chain but human exploitation means their numbers are in decline. Last month five Pacific states added their signatures to an international memorandum on shark conservation.
Report – By Jessica Tasman-Jones.
Around the world sharks strike fear in ocean swimmers. But while five people die from shark attacks in an average year, millions of sharks are killed through human fishing.
Last month, five Pacific states and territories signed an agreement for the conservation of the creatures.
The agreement was part of the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) memorandum of understanding which aims to conserve shark population numbers.
The memorandum – which is not legally binding – was developed at a United Nations-backed meeting held in February this year.
At the time of the meeting, 11 states signed the agreement while Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands signed the CMS agreement at the 21st meeting of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) held in Papua New Guinea last month.
A significant cause of declining shark numbers is the popularity of shark-fin soup.
Every year 73 million sharks are reported to be killed by finning.
The CMS agreement concluded a meeting of government representatives in the Philippines.
The memorandum states signatories are “concerned about the significant mortality of sharks”.
The migration patterns of many species of shark means conservation efforts in one state can be undermined by actions in other waters.
Co-chairperson from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sarah Fowler presented an update on the conservation status of migratory sharks at the meeting.
She said more than 40 percent of migratory shark species are over-exploited and 15 percent are depleted.
Fowler explained sharks are the most threatened of all taxonomic groups.
Overall, shark stocks today are 30 percent lower than two decades ago.
‘Dedication to cause’
A shark assessment scientist at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Shelley Clarke, says the CMS agreement is not legally binding but does demonstrate “dedication to the cause”.
Shark finning is the practice of removing sharks’ fins and discarding their carcasses into the sea.
Shark-fin soup has been considered a delicacy in China since the Ming dynasty and is popular in a number of Asian countries today.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Hong Kong is at the centre of global trade with 50-80 percent of fins going through their ports.
Target destinations include China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand.
The average cost for fins is US$100 per kilogram.
The discrepancy in value between fins and shark meat drives the practice of shark-finning.
The practice has attracted international condemnation from conservation groups and animal welfare advocates, not only for its impact on shark numbers but also for the cruel nature of harvesting the fins.
Clarke points out New Zealand is one of the few countries where finning is not prohibited.
Forest and Bird has been running a campaign against the practice for more than a year.
Marine conservation advocate for the organisation Kirstie Knowles says pressure to maintain the practice comes from commercial fishing vessels who say keeping the relatively worthless bodies on board is a waste of space.
Knowles says both local and foreign fishing vessels drive this argument.
Last month, the Jakarta Globe reported of the 100 million sharks killed each year, an estimated 73 million are caught for their fins.
As such, many sharks are finned alive and then dumped back in the ocean where they either drown or bleed to death.
Illegal in NZ
Live finning is not legal in New Zealand waters but Knowles says there is evidence the practice does still occur.
In Asia, campaigns urge consumers not to buy shark-fin soup.
Basketball star Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan have been among the celebrity campaigners.
Anti-finning Facebook groups and Youtube videos have also spread.
A fisheries management adviser to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Steve Shanks, says there is no export market for shark carcasses but there is a growing market for shark fins.
At the local level, there is some subsistence fishing for sharks and a few industrial boats in Papua New Guinea that target sharks, Shanks says.
However he explains most pressure on the animal comes from distant fishing nations.
The lucrative market has caused increased exploitation in the past five to six years, Shanks says.
The Pacific’s proximity to Southeast Asia is of some concern, he says, but species across the world are being exploited for their fins.
Clarke agrees saying fins can be easily dried or frozen and freighted from all corners of the world.
The CMS signatories say they will “regulate or manage” the harvest of sharks for finning despite calls from the European delegation for a complete ban.
While sharks have a reputation as ruthless killers it is their role at the top of the food chain that makes them important to ocean ecosystems.
Dr Malcolm Francis, principle scientist of inshore and pelagic fishes at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric research (NIWA), says sharks are one of the ocean’s top predators.
The carnivorous animal feeds on fish, squid, invertebrates and crabs effectively keeping the next level of the food chain under control, he says.
Francis also explains sharks “clean-up” the sea’s dead animal carcasses.
They also play a role in pushing evolution by weeding out older and sicker animals of the ocean, he says.
Beneficial genes remain in the gene pool and help species to survive.
“They effectively keep creatures on their toes,” Francis says.
One Pacific state Clarke credits with leading the way on shark conservation is Palau.
Last year the Pacific republic announced it was establishing a 600,000 sq km shark sanctuary.
At the time of the announcement, President Johnson Toribiong urged other countries to follow suit.
“The need to protect the sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup,” he said.
Sharks are a popular attraction for scuba-divers who visit Palau, the BBC reported at the time.
Associate director of the New Zealand Tourism Institute Professor Mark Orams says shark tourism started to take off in the mid-nineties.
He says tourists will potentially come away from shark encounters with a greater understanding about the animal.
Orams suggests a lack of public concern for declining shark numbers could be a result of fear and apathy for the animals.
“But seeing sharks in the wild people can see their importance to ecosystems, their unique behaviour, and can begin to better understand them.”
Orams says the educational experience of shark tourism has the potential to contribute to the animals’ conservation.
Furthermore the tours can be beneficial for local economies.
Despite the benefits, however, evidence suggests shark tourism has the potential to alter the animals’ behaviour.
In addition to Palau shark tourism is popular in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
Jessica Tasman-Jones is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.