Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shark News: not a couple of good weeks if you're a shark

It hasn't been a particularly good couple of weeks for sharks.

First there was the large 20-foot, 4000-pound female white shark that was caught in the Sea of Cortez.  Reportedly caught accidentally in the fishing nets of some local fishermen, it garnered media attention because of its massive size.  As it turns out, it apparently had a research tag showing it had traveled from the coast of central California.  Conjecture is that it traveled to the Sea of Cortez to give birth as this is a popular theory being proposed and studied by researchers.

The Sea of Cortez is an area that is being heavily fished by local fishermen and several species are being hard hit by the overall level of the catch.  If juvenile white sharks are being taken - evidence of which has been seen in local fish markets - and females are being caught, either accidentally or deliberately, for a slow-reproducing animal like the great white shark, this is not good news.

Next up was the unfortunate fatal attack on a bodysurfer in South Africa.  There have been fatal attacks throughout the years, but what raised the hackles of locals and caught the attention of the media was the fact that a film production company/research group was in the area apparently chumming to attract sharks for tagging purposes.  South African government officials, who had issued the permits to allow the research, pulled those permits and from there it's been a media communications nightmare of accusations and a lot of CYA.

The production company had been filming in the past for National Geographic Channel's Shark Men series, but Nat Geo issued a response saying that they had not been working with this particular company for some time.  South African government officials are being accused of faulty vetting of the operation in issuing the permits, but it's been said that there were scientists on board to ensure that no reckless behavior for the sake of dramatic film footage was taking place.  And the production company claims that their actions were well within acceptable practices.

Then along comes a preliminary research study from Australia that says there may be a causal link between chumming used by shark diving operators and behavioral changes in white sharks.  The report itself says it's not conclusive and does not imply that, because of chumming, white sharks are purposely seeking out humans, but it certainly added fuel to the fire of the anti-shark locals.  It's quite a media mess and at this point it's hard to tell what the final results might be as to whether we'll see some knee-jerk reactions against the sharks by officials trying to placate those who believe they have greater rights to the seas than do the sharks.  At the very least, it's bad P.R. for the sharks; the spectre of shark nets or a crack down on all shark diving operators always looms in the background.

Finally, the media outlets have been jumping all over a new study from the University of Hawaii and British Columbia's University of Victoria which says that Pacific reef shark populations have declined by as much as 90 percent or more in the past few decades.  This decline has been noted in other studies, but this particular study had an interesting twist to it, as reported by The Washington Post's environmental writer, Juliet Eilperin.

The researchers study shark populations over 46 islands in the Pacific and not only found a decline but, conversely, found increases in shark populations wherever human populations decreased over the years and the productivity and temperature of the ocean increased.

“Our results suggest humans now exert a stronger influence on the abundance of reef sharks than either habitat quality or oceanographic factors,” said the researchers. 

Many of the islands involved in the study have laws and regulations in place to protect sharks but, as is the case with many conservation regulations worldwide, enforcement is lacking either due to lack of resources or political will.

Julia Baum, assistant professor at the University of Victoria and co-author of the study, said, “To me, enforcement of these islands is a major unsung conservation challenge, and I suspect that if this is not effectively addressed [as soon as possible], the reef sharks on these islands will be fished out within the next 10 years.”  

The Muppets' Kermit the Frog once sang, "It's not easy being green."  It's not easy being a shark either.  We need our green puppets for comic relief; and we need our sharks for something far more important: the preservation and natural balance of the sea's marine life.

Source: Sacramento Bee
Source: Mail & Guardian Online.  
Source: The Washington Post  
Photo: Brian Skerry

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