No Sharks? No Thanks!

8 Oct 2008 0 Share

The idea of surfing in a shark-free ocean might sound like something we would all want. No more jumping at shadows in the water. No more looking longingly at an empty line up wishing there was at least one person in the water to make you feel a bit braver about going out. No more need to think “I hope that was a dolphin!”

While many of us fear encountering a shark lurking in the ocean, these thoughts are largely irrational because – terrible as they are when they happen – shark attacks are incredibly rare.

Although knowing there were no sharks in the water might put our minds at rest, the results would spell disaster for the marine environment. As top predators, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of the seas and they still do a pretty good job despite our best efforts to pollute, dredge, mine, overfish and even change the climate.

Unfortunately, like we did with the great whales, humans are now killing off sharks at a frightening rate. Figures of 100 million sharks caught worldwide each year are not exaggerations and scientists estimate that shark populations have declined by 90% in the last half century. Sharks are in deep, deep trouble.

With this in mind, the State and Commonwealth governments’ decision to allow a huge expansion in shark fishing last year in NSW seems to be a little less than wise. Catches of Whaler sharks alone have risen from an average of 165 tonnes per year to 440 tonnes last year. This dramatic rise in catches seems all the more dangerous when we consider that next to nothing is known about shark populations or shark movements in NSW waters.

Many of the sharks targeted in Australia are officially listed as being at high risk of extinction by the IUCN, the scientific body responsible for assessing the status of animals and plants around the world. Expanding the shark fishery is similar to allowing the hunting of koalas in Australia. The difference is that more is known about koala populations and movements. In fact koalas are less endangered than many of the sharks routinely caught in Australia.

The question of why shark fishing has suddenly become so popular is an easy one to answer – it has to do with their fins. Shark fins are incredibly valuable as the key ingredient in shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in China. With the economic boom in China, more people can now afford shark fin soup and sharks are paying the price.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW is calling for an end to shark fishing in NSW until research can show at what levels, if any, it can be sustainable. It is hard to overstate the seriousness of the threat these animals are facing and it is distressing to see the marine environment being degraded in the name of short-term profit.

Protecting sharks can be a hard sell. They inspire more fear than any other marine creatures and their cold blood and sharp teeth mean they have a hard time competing for the public’s affections with ‘friendlier’ animals like whales and dolphins.

At the same time as the majestic humpback whales cruise south down Australia’s east coast, boats are steaming out of Coffs Harbour to catch an unspecified number of the equally majestic sharks so that their fins can end up in glorified chicken soup. It is a sad and somehow inappropriate end for the ocean’s top predators.

- Ben Birt

Marine and Fisheries Conservation Officer Adopt a Shark Co-ordinator


Coastalwatch is a Shark Parent and are supporters of the Help save the Grey Nurse Shark: www.adoptashark.org.au campaign.

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