Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ocean Conservation and Culture: one does not have to look far to find conflict

Ocean conservation requires not only an understanding and appreciation of the various worldwide marine ecology and the species that contribute to their existence; an understanding of the specific environmental threats to ecosystems and specific sealife, whether directly man-made or occurring naturally through cyclical patterns. We also need to understand the cultural histories that formulate the attitudes of people regarding the ocean and its future.

In the case of endangered species, likes sharks, whales, tuna, or a wide range of commercially harvested animals, we often turn towards Asian or developing island nations and the long-standing culture steeped in the use of seafood. We wring our hands when considering how these societies can appear to be so singular in purpose and dedicated to consuming natural marine resources - both locally and in international waters.

To be sure, these nations have long cultural histories intertwined with the bounty of the sea and it is a challenge to get them to objectively look at what is happening to their treasured ocean resources before it is too late. But internal progress is being made, although it is a slow process. "Outsiders" can have only so much of an effect; much has to come from self-realization within the culture itself. We see this with anti-shark positions being taken by citizens in Taiwan while a healthy trade in shark fins continues. Japan's harvest of whales and dolphins continues while the consumption of their meat is declining. These conflicting positions represent the achingly slow process of transforming a society to a new way of thinking.

Often, one does not have to travel far to find these same dichotomies at work. In the United States, take the State of Florida for instance. Surrounded on all sides, except for its northern border, by ocean, the "Sunshine State" has a long history with the sea and, in light of today's environmental concerns, we see a culture that is in flux with wasteful attitudes or activities colliding with conservation.

Four recent news articles highlight how Florida can have one foot in the past and one in the future. Reported in Ocean City Today, the 31st Annual Ocean City shark tournament concludes today. This three-day event brings in sportfishermen hungry to catch the largest or heaviest shark in the hopes of winning trophy money that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Sportfishing is not only part of the societal fabric of Florida, it's also big business, so the likelihood that it's going to go away anytime soon in deference to overfished species like sharks, tuna, billfish, or other game fish is fairly remote.

As reported in Ocean City Today,
"The Ocean City Shark Tournament is the second of two fishing competitions that allow anglers to accumulate points toward the “Ocean City Sharker of the Year” title. The first event was Mako Mania, which took place June 3-5. Divisions for the event, which has become one of the largest shark tournaments on the East Coast, are: mako, open (threshers and blue shark only), release, bluefish, tuna and dolphin."

As much as shark advocates abhor these shark tournaments, within that listing of categories for the Ocean City Shark Tournament lies one ray of hope: the "release" category. The tournament directors are working to promote catch-and-release of sharks as opposed to bringing in dead ones. And they are trying to facilitate a change in attitude by using bait that is tantalizing to the human species; more trophy money is being diverted to catch-and-release prize categories based on species, size or number. Sure, I would be the first to say let's put an end to all shark sportfishing tournaments tomorrow, but that would be an easy pronouncement for me, coming from California where such events mostly don't exist. But to Florida and its long-standing history in sportfishing, baby steps are required.

However, it would appear that progress towards all catch-and-release is continuing. The Blacktip Shark Shootout, a two-day event which concludes today, has adopted an all catch-and-release format.

As reported in the St. Petersburg Times,
"Shark, like tarpon, could be the next great catch-and-release fishery. Every angler knows that if you catch a fish and kill it, you've got dinner. But if let it go, it can be caught again and again. 'And they are pretty hardy,' {charter captain and tournament co-founder, Joel] Brandenburg said. 'Sharks put up a great fight, and after you release them, they will swim off as if nothing ever happened.'" Now, there are plenty of shark researchers who might want to argue that last statement, but that's a fisherman talking - albeit one who is making an effort to change the way things have been done for years.

However, attitudes about sharks as a food source still persist, and not just overseas in Asian restaurants and marketplaces. ran an article on Friday titled "Locals attack shark, buffet style at CJ's on the Bay." It seems that a popular local eatery is heralding in the summer with Loco for the Locals Luau, a Hawaiian island-style barbecue, and rather than use the more traditional roasted pig as the main course, this year the restaurant decided on a whole shark.

“We wanted to do something for our local customers as well, customers that may or may not be members of the Chamber [of Commerce, which held a prior event using roasted pig],” Chef Laura Owens said. “We threw some ideas around and I said, ‘lets roast a shark.’ We might be setting some new ground.” Well, I sure hope not. In fact, it's a slap in the face to Hawaiian culture to use the concept of a luau and, at the same time, roast an animal that is revered throughout Hawaiian tribal history.

However, while there is not a widespread understanding as to the perilous conditions to which shark populations are faced, even in the waters off Florida, progress is being made by Florida regulatory agencies to better protect more species of sharks that have been the target of sport and commercial fishermen for decades. reports that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Comission is considering protections for tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks - two species that have been popular with sportfishermen over the years and whose numbers have noticeably declined.

According to Neil Hammerschlag, shark expert from the University of Miami, "Tiger sharks and hammerheads do not reproduce often or quickly, and both are highly prized for their fins for use in shark-fin soup. The pregnant animals come into shallow water to give birth, where the pups can find food and protection from other predators. That tends to make them very vulnerable to fishing. Studies have shown that taking even a few large individuals can have a big effect on the population in a local area."

With already 22 shark species protected in Florida, ranging from great whites to smaller Caribbean reef sharks, a prohibition on landing tiger and hammerhead sharks would not necessarily impact the sportfishing industry, according to Christy Johnson of SeaSquared Charters.

"We do catch and release for big sharks," she said. "I don't know anybody who takes the bigger sharks, except maybe trying for a mako."

So, one does not have to travel far to find conflicting attitudes about sharks or other dwindling fish stocks and what needs to be done about it. Progress is being made but old habits and cultures die hard. It will take patience and persistence on the part of those who recognize the need for immediate steps to preserve our natural resources while accepting the fact that some will need to come kicking and screaming - or may never come around at all.

Read about the Ocean City shark tournament in Ocean City Today.
Read about the Blacktip Shark Shootout in the St. Petersburg Times.
Read about the roasted shark Luau at
Read about tigher and hammerhead shark protections in

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