It’s no wonder why people feel frightened by the thought of being in the water with a shark – they are powerful, sleek, and silent predators that have roamed the vast seas for millions of years. Their six senses are impeccably designed for the water world in which they reside. Yet an ocean that was once abundant with sharks has become an ocean at risk of losing these valuable species. Scientists have estimated that more than 90% of all large shark species have been depleted. A once indestructible monster of old fishermen’s tales is no longer plenty, but is now dwindling to numbers so low it threatens the stability of entire marine ecosystems.
However, there is, of course, still hope.
Palau, a country nestled in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, took a giant leap forward in terms of ecological and economical stewardship. In 2009, leaders in Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary! Encompassing roughly 230,000 square miles, the shark safe haven is comparable to the size of France and offers sharks protection from foreign long-line fishing vessels that seek shark fins. Commonly known as “shark finning,” this gruesome process involves the capture of sharks, removal of their fins by knife, and then the dumping of their, often still living, bodies back into the water where they endure a slow death from starvation. The growing demands for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, has taken its toll on the oceans top predator. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year, with the numbers likely to rise due to the increase in global trade and booming human populations. Palau made a powerful decision to implement the world’s first shark sanctuary, and their efforts have not gone unnoticed. They have contributed by not only fighting for a healthier ocean, but also by inspiring other countries to stand up and fight alongside them.
Countries from all over the globe have begun to acknowledge the benefits of establishing shark protection zones. In March of 2010, the Maldives became the second nation to create a shark sanctuary. 35,000 square miles of its waters are now protected areas where species such as the scalloped hammerheads, one of the most endangered shark species, will no longer feel the pressure of commercial fishing. Earlier this year, Honduras and the Bahamas followed suit, with Honduras declaring over 92,000 square miles of their waters a “permanent shark sanctuary” and the Bahamas setting aside an astounding 250,000 square miles as their shark safe haven. Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand, joined in and reserved 120,000 square miles to support the preservation of sharks. Similarly, countries such as Guam, Chile, Mexico, and the Northern Mariana Islands have taken measures to limit or restrict the taking and sale of shark fins.
Just this month, another country arose as a world leader in the fight for shark conservation. The Marshall Islands, a Micronesian nation, put in place the largest area of shark protection ever created – 768,000 square miles of shark refuge. This is an area nearly four times the size of California. The Marshallese parliament, the Nitijela, passed legislation this October that bans all commercial shark fishing throughout their waters. It is the strongest legislation ever passed regarding shark protection and carries heavy fines for those who engage in the sale, trade, or possession of any shark, shark fins, or shark products.
As of last month, California has joined the fight against shark finning alongside Hawaii, Washington and Oregon– fundamentally cutting off the US West Coast as a contributor of any shark fin products. As the once major importer of dried shark fins products in the US, California’s ban constitutes an incredible victory for the continued protection of sharks.
Toronto has also joined the cause. Just this week, city councilors passed a ban on not only the trade and possession of shark fins, but also on the consumption. This initiative could prove monumental for Canada because it may prompt a national ban on shark finning.
The growing momentum for shark conservation means that more people will become aware of the issues that sharks, the ocean, and ourselves are currently facing. We used to believe that the ocean was endless; we used it to dump out waste, to catch our food, and to exploit whatever we deemed desirable. Yet we have seen, all too often, the detrimental consequences of these actions.
Nations across the world have begun to see the value of sharks as drivers of a healthier ocean. The sanctuaries and laws put in place are only the first steps. Now we must continue our fight to enforce these laws and make clear to the world that sharks are not ours for the taking – they are top predators that deserve to remain where they belong.
Photo: A blue shark in the wild. © Matthew Ferraro, Ocean Futures Society