Extinction with minimum chips - episode 1

3 Feb 2011 0 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer



Of all the living things on our planet, sharks occupy a unique role, embodying the darkness in our hearts, evoking everything that spooks us about the deep.

But the relationship is more complex than eating and being eaten. Sharks inspire all manner of ritual and symbolism, strains of belief and superstition that persist throughout human history. Their sleek lines are a metaphor for anything fast and predatory: moneylenders and lawyers especially. They are the men in grey suits. They are Jaws the hideous, and Bruce the loveable. We’ve professed to loath them, but we’re addicted to the idea of them. They are as much a part of our history as we are. And they’re disappearing.

Jock Serong explores the problems facing sharks, possible solutions, and why we should care…


Know your enemy?
Nowadays we all know the statistics about bee stings and lightning strikes and shark attacks. What follows is a brief look at how much strife sharks are in, at least from an Australian perspective. If the picture presented below seems dire, it should be said that it’s infinitely worse elsewhere.

Globally, there are more than 1500 species of shark roaming the oceans, of which about 300 species are found in Australian waters. About half of these are fished in some way.

Since protection in 1997 stopped game fishing for Great Whites, focus has shifted to the eco-tourism industry , with shark dives aquainting the genereal public with these apex predators.

Since protection in 1997 stopped game fishing for Great Whites, focus has shifted to the eco-tourism industry , with shark dives aquainting the genereal public with these apex predators.

In simple terms, the sharks we interact with can be divided into two groups: those that form stable populations within our coastal waters, and those that migrate, entering and leaving Australian waters along deep ocean routes that are little understood.

Among the first group are the school sharks, whalers, gummies, rays, elephant fish and other cartilaginous critters. Among the latter group are the giants, such as the great white.

The domestic fishery
Coastal shark populations are the targets of the fishing industry, caught by both gill-netting and longlines, particularly in Bass Strait. Whilst the gummy is entirely native to our southern coastline, the school shark is also found along the coasts of Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Both can be found in waters lapping round your ankles, and all the way down to the black depths of 400 metres or more.

Extinction and minimun chips
The Australian fondness for “flake” is a puzzling thing. Sure, you won’t hit a bone, but then there aren’t any bones in calamari either. Few would seriously contend it tastes better than snapper and whiting. And it carries a hidden menace: federal health guidelines recommend that pregnant women eat flake no more than once a fortnight, because it’s high in mercury. Yet we consume the stuff by the tonne.

As you might expect, the species we eat, like school and gummy sharks, are the subject of much more study than the ones we don’t eat. We know that they take a long time to recover from overfishing. We know they grow very slowly and can take 20 years or more to reach sexual maturity, sometimes living for fifty years in all. We know that when they do reproduce, they have very few offspring compared to other food fish species.

Bycatch
As well as sharks that are targeted deliberately, there’s a heavy accidental toll every year in sharks caught as bycatch, especially on longlines intended for tuna and swordfish. The level of unintended destruction is alarming: there are seven domestic fisheries targeting shark but over seventy taking shark as bycatch.

Sharks caught on a longline.

Sharks caught on a longline.

Whilst marine mammals such as dolphins are now protected by better regulation of fishing practices, the tired old stereotype of sharks as mean toothy bastards means you’re unlikely to see a ‘shark friendly’ emblem on your tuna can any time soon.

Commercial fishing
Commercial shark fishing in this country has pushed at least one species to the very brink.

In April 2008, the then Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, placed an export ban on a shark fishery in northern Western Australia because of a sharp decline in its numbers. "The rate of decline in the sandbar shark was considered so severe that shark fishing had to be stopped in the area," a WA Fisheries Department spokesman said.

The sandbar shark is a species of requiem shark, a sadly ironic tag for an animal on the verge of extinction. Sandbar sharks are the supermodels of the cartilaginous fishes: sleek, sharp and perfectly proportioned, they’ve never been implicated in an attack on humans.

What can you do?



The writer would like to thank Ingrid Neilson at the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Kent "Black" Stannard at WhiteTag for their generous help in researching this article. You can check out their very informative websites at www.amcs.org.au and www.whitetag.com.au



Got a good shark story? Got an opinion about sharing the surf with them? Let us know....


Tags: wildlife , protection , fishing , shark (create Alert from these tags)

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