Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Week for Sharks: CA shark fin ban is now law, Australia concerned over shark diving

It's been a week for sharks, particularly in California. Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 376 into law which bans the trade and possession of shark fins in California. This was a critical piece in a mosaic of shark fin distribution in the northern Pacific ocean.

As reported by COARE (Center for Oceanic Awareness Research and Education), "California's ban complements bans in place in Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon, effectively shutting the west coast of the United States to fin traders. It is estimated that the United States is responsible for 70% of the world's fin imports outside of Asia. With a staggering 85% of those U.S.-bound fins passing through California, AB 376 will have a tremendous impact on shark conservation."

Now we must watch for where the next distribution hubs will appear - there's too much at stake financially for some of these shark fin distributors to simply throw in the towel. And there is also the concern over illegal activities.

But the tide does seem to be turning and other nations are considering tighter regulations or out right bans on shark products. My personal concern is that, for some of the general public, sharks have become the cause d'jour and while there are some hard working advocates who, I am sure, will keep the fires burning for more conservation and regulation, I worry that the general public might tire of the cause - in today's Information Age, attention spans can dry up in the blink of an eye - and without public support, commercial shark fishing lobbyists and business representatives will jump on the opportunity to sway politicians in their favor. Only time will tell.

"The world has been watching and waiting. With similar efforts underway in parts of Canada, and with a ban proposed in China, California's efforts hopefully will ripple into many other places," said COARE.

However, one avenue whereby people can appreciate sharks up close in the wild may soon be curtailed or at least limited. Australia is one of three or four primary locations in the world where people can cage dive to view great white sharks. But Australia's ABC News reports that there
are new findings that white sharks are staying in close to coastal areas, where they are often baited for the shark diving operators, and anecdotal reports of an increased number of shark/surfer encounters has some saying that the number of operators should be halved from four to two and that the number of days in which they can chum for sharks should also be reduced. (Click image to view video.)

There have been studies, both in Australia and Hawaii, that show that the sharks' response to chumming over a given period is a transitory behavior and does not equate into 1.) a significant change in the shark's normal feeding behavior and 2.) that the sharks do not equate the boat-supplied food with humans. However, some thought should be given to the fact that in Australia, they are currently chumming for white sharks as much as 270 days a year - double that of just a few years ago.

On a personal note, today I am leaving for San Diego, California to embark on my seventeenth trip to Isla Guadalupe off the coast of Baja, Mexico, compliments of Shark Diver. Isla Guadalupe is one of the world's premier sites for viewing great white sharks. A population migrates to the
island in the fall months and though Mexican government regulations have greatly scaled back any baiting of the sharks, there are still plenty of encounters to keep the cage-bound divers thrilled and satisfied. I will be accompanying my friend and photojournalist, Budd Riker on his inaugural trip as he takes notes and pictures for a future photo magazine article.

While some zealous Mexican conservation groups have expressed concern that the shark diving operators at Isla Guadalupe have, over the years, disrupted the normal behavior of these sharks; in the seven years that I have been coming to the island I have yet to see any evidence or reason for concern. When the sharks were more vigorously chummed and baited in the past, the sum total of what they consumed was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the normal requirements for their diet which, for adults, consists of primarily seals and sea lions. And as the sharks would inhabit the waters around Isla Guadalupe for just three to four months, it is reasonable to assume that they didn't spend the next eight months wasting away, waiting for when they would return to Mexican waters for some leftover fish parts.

So, I will be heading out in just a few minutes and will post a follow up when I get back in a few days. In the meantime, shark advocates, no time to rest on our California legislation laurels. There's still more work to be done.

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