Shark conservation is a tough sell. I've said that before. For all it's groundswell popularity in the last few years, it continually suffers from a primal hesitation people have to fully embrace it. There are passionate advocates but in the larger scheme of things, we are still a small segment of the total population. But some progress is being made.
Over the past few years, we have seen shark sanctuaries established in a few island nations and several states in the U.S. have initiated shark fin regulations or bans. This is all good news and it represents a step in the right direction in trying to impact the market for shark fins and shark-related products.
However, the next challenge is also the most formidable one: taking it to an international level that confronts the powerful economic realities of the shark finning industry. This is where highly-placed influence peddlers work the back room deals to maintain the status quo. And from an ecological standpoint, this is where the real damage is taking place.
The Pew Environment Group has a series of photographs, freely available for media use, that are staggering in their illustration of the scope of the problem. Looking at these photos, taken in Taiwan, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that it would be literally impossible for a species whose reproductive rate is low, as is the case with sharks, to be able to survive such industrial-level harvesting. The photo at the top of this post and the two below were taken by Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group:
According to The New York Times, four of the leading nations involved in commercial shark finning are Taiwan, Indonesia, India, and Spain. And several developing nations assist by providing some of the boats and the crew - at bare subsistence-level wages. And that brings up another challenge: if world opinion were to succeed in curtailing the practice, we would also have the responsibility of providing an alternative source of income for these low-paid workers and fishermen. For them, feeding their families is a much greater priority than preserving sharks.
Several nations that provide sanctuary protections for sharks unfortunately offer these safeguards in name only as they do not have the resources available to enforce their regulations. A recent example is the slaughter of 2,000 sharks in Colombia's Pacific marine wildlife sanctuary by commercial boats, reportedly of Costa Rican origin. With no Colombian naval vessels in sight, it was reported that up to 10 boats entered the protected waters, freely taking hammerhead, Galapagos, and whale sharks.
While generating grass roots-level advocacy is important, shark conservation must now move forcefully into the international arena, getting organizations like IUCN, CITES, ICAAT, and the United Nations to wake up to the realities of what is happening in international waters. It will not be easy. Those industrialists who benefit from the shark have a lot at stake; they will fight hard. And international diplomacy by its very nature is painfully slow. So, the reality may be that, long before we run an oil platform dry or see sea levels noticeable rise due to climate change, we may witness the extinction of many species of shark.
Therefore, shark conservation, as a movement, must focus its efforts not only on general public awareness but must also develop strategies to take on the industry directly on a global level. It may be akin to David facing Goliath, but according to legend, David won.
See more photos of industrial shark finning at the Pew Environment Group website.
Read an overview of the shark finning industry in the New York Times.
Read about the recent slaughter of sharks in Colombia in the Guardian.