SCIENCE: SAVING ENDANGERED FISHERY RESOURCES FROM EXTINCTION (Fourth of Five Parts)

Blue sharks swim in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Azores, Portugal, 18 September 2017. Blue sharks are threatened with overfishing by Spanish industrial fishing boats in the NW Atlantic, ostensibly fishing for swordfish. The blue shark population in the North Pacific has declined by over 50 percent from 1996 to 2009. Fins from blue sharks account for between 60 to 80 percent of all fins found in the Hong Kong market. In 2017 alone, Hong Kong imported 628 tonnes of frozen blue shark fins from Spain.

Sharks, described as a “highly feared apex predator of the sea,” have been on this planet for some 400 million years, according to marine biologists. They possess replaceable razor-sharp teeth that grow in tens of thousands over a lifetime, which are “purely designed for killing and eating.”

Their presence in the open seas is enough to send people to find a place where they could be safe.  The Steven Spielberg directed movie, Jaws, is a classic example. After the Hollywood blockbuster was released, people stopped going to the beach.

Unknowingly, sharks help maintain the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. “They are top predators,” says Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, founder and director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines.  “Sharks maintain healthy ecosystems by keeping fish populations in check.”

Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, agrees.  “Their presence is an indicator of a healthy ocean with abundance of prey, including fisheries.  Without them, there will be no early warning signs of impending impacts that could ultimately affect human survival.”

According to Dr. Lim, sharks keep population of certain species in check thus keeping the fish stocks robust.  In addition, they help in preventing the spread of diseases.  “They naturally preyed upon the weakest and the ones in poor health,” she explains.

But while sharks may have a deadly reputation, their population are dwindling.  This has been the contention of a recent scientific paper published in Marine Policy.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Hong Kong, the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia and WildAid, reveals that fishing pressure on threatened shark populations has increased dramatically.

Data from the Sea Around Us shows that the global shark catch has more than doubled to 1.4 million tons the in the last six decades, with the overexploitation “threatening almost 60% of shark species, the highest proportion among all vertebrate groups,” said lead author Professor Yvonne Sadovy, of the Swire Institute for Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong.

Over the past several years, dozens of countries around the world have adopted bans on shark fishing.  “However, given the prevalence of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, and the fact that most countries still do not ban finning, the practice continues globally,” WildAid said in a press statement.

Faced with challenges such as poor enforcement, accidental catch, inadequate laws, and criminal activity, the researchers call for adopting the precautionary principle and halting the consumption and trade in all shark fin.

Blue sharks swim in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Azores, Portugal, 18 September 2017. Blue sharks are threatened with overfishing by Spanish industrial fishing boats in the NW Atlantic, ostensibly fishing for swordfish. The blue shark population in the North Pacific has declined by over 50 percent from 1996 to 2009. Fins from blue sharks account for between 60 to 80 percent of all fins found in the Hong Kong market. In 2017 alone, Hong Kong imported 628 tonnes of frozen blue shark fins from Spain.

In fact, some species of sharks are now facing potential extinction.  “If you go to any reef around the world, except for those that are really protected, the sharks are gone,” said Dr. Ransom Myers, a world-renowned American marine biologist and conservationist.  “Their value is so great that completely harmless sharks, like whalesharks, are killed, for their fins.”

Sharks are the main ingredient for shark fin soup, a prestigious dish among ethnic Chinese both in China and abroad, served at wedding banquets, Lunar New Year celebrations, and high-end restaurants. 

“The demand among an expanding middle class in places like Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia is driving unsustainable fishing in unmanaged fisheries of less economically developed countries,” WildAid deplored.

Dr. Myers has warned that overfishing of sharks could lead to collapse of Atlantic cod populations and also noted that 90% of the world’s bluefin tuna and other large predatory fish have already disappeared. The outlook for sharks and large predators is not good.

The future looks bleak.  There are over 1,000 shark species that swim the world’s oceans, according to Save Sharks Network Philippines (SSNP).  With 200 species, the Philippines has earned a unique position globally in shark biodiversity.  It ranks fourth after Australia, Indonesia, and Japan. 

What most Filipinos don’t know is that some of the most dangerous sharks in the world are thriving in the country’s waters.  The Davao Gulf is reportedly a migration path for several species, including whale sharks.

When God created the heaven and earth, he asked man to be the steward of his creations.  “Sadly, humans have always been very good at killing big animals,” noted Dr. Myers. “Ten thousand years ago, with just some pointed sticks, humans managed to wipe out the woolly mammoth, sabre tooth tigers, mastodons, and giant vampire bats.”

He said the same could happen in the oceans. Studies show that around the world, people kill nearly 100 million sharks and billions of other sea animals each year.

And although concerns for sharks are high, shark populations continue to decline due to lack of fisheries management and rampant illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a report released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Traffic (WWF). 

Data submitted to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations said that between 2000 and 2008 the Philippines reported exports of dried and salted shark fins (averaging 36 tons per year) and shark liver oil (19 tons per year).

This has to stop, said House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo recently. So, she filed House Bill No. 7912, the “Act Regulating the Catching, Sale, Purchae, Possession, Transportation, Importation, and Exportation of All Sharks, Rays, and Chimaeras and Any Part Thereof in the Country.”

Arroyo says that due to their unique life history traits, sharks and their relatives reproduces slowly, making them particularly vulnerable to threats from targeted fisheries, overfishing, bycatch, pollution, unregulated tourism, and climate change. “A declined population will find it hard to recover without special conservation attention,” she adds.

Sharks are not created equal.  “There are different kinds of sharks,” Dr. Lim says.  “The carnivorous sharks, like the tiger sharks, great whales, bull sharks, are considered apex predators.”

But there are sharks which don’t eat meat.  “The largest sharks are harmless and are plankton-feeders,” Dr. Lim says, referring to whale sharks and megamouths.  Like the apex predators, these large sharks are also good indicators of abundant food supply.  “The presence of krills and copepods that these sharks feed on also attract marine species that are considered important to fisheries,” she says.

Aside from ecological benefits, sharks have also been proven to boost local economies through sustainable tourism activities. The most noted shark-based tourism in the country are those in Donsol in Sorsogon and Malapascua Island in Cebu.

“You can [benefit from] live sharks over and over again throughout their lifetime. But once they are dead, you can use them only once and nothing more,” Dr. Yaptinchay says.

In addition, sharks can also be a source of food of those living near the seashores. “In greater numbers, sharks and ray can be part of the diet of coastal communities, as it was in the olden days when they have not yet been overhunted, and the oceans were less polluted,” Dr. Lim says.

Sharks have to be saved from disappearing in the country’s waters.  “Protecting sharks in the Philippines is in our best interest,” SSNP said in a statement.  “Their presence is beneficial to both our economy and ecosystems.” (To be concluded)

(Photos courtesy of WildAid)