Scientists across the globe make case for shark conservation, says Birch Aquarium marine biologist in La Jolla
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a four-part series on exhibits, public programs, lectures, and scientific research in connection with Shark Summer at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
By Lynne Friedmann
The phrase “marine conservation” evokes images of an energetic dolphin, a fluffy seal pup or a majestic whale. The phrase “shark conservation” is apt to evoke puzzlement. Why conserve something that most of us find downright frightening?
Unfortunately, it is fear based on misinformation, media overreaction and manipulative movie plots, according to Andrew P. Nosal, Ph.D., the Birch Aquarium’s DeLaCour Postdoctoral Fellow in Ecology and Conservation.
Nosal, whose research is focused on La Jolla’s near-shore population of docile leopard sharks, is concerned about the negative public perception of sharks in light of precipitous species declines, with some open-ocean populations down 90 percent.
Nosal separated fact from fiction during a public lecture titled “Shark Conservation: Safeguarding the Future of Our Oceans,” held July 8 as part of the aquarium’s ongoing Perspectives of Ocean Science Lecture Series.
There are more than 400 shark species, displaying a wide assortment of form, feeding habits, range of movement and use of habitat.
“When you hear the word ‘shark,’ I want you to think first of their diversity,” Nosal told the audience.
Over-fishing, increased demand for shark products and poor fisheries management are pushing many species toward extinction. This month, a study published in the journal Marine Policy (http://bit.ly/ZKX4pv) estimated the number of sharks killed each year in commercial fisheries at 100 million. This exceeds many species’ ability to recover because sharks are slow growing, sexual mature later in life, have a prolonged gestation period and deliver relatively few pups.
Because sharks are apex predators their loss causes a cascading effect in which unchecked fish populations soon gobble up smaller fish and invertebrates resulting in the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species down the food chain.
What about sharks’ fearsome reputation?
Nosal said it’s unjustified when you consider that, on average, 65 people worldwide are injured by sharks each year with only two or three of those encounters resulting in death.
“You’re more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark,” said Nosal.
Why are we so afraid of sharks?
When you stop to consider that relatively few people have the opportunity to observe sharks in the wild or live in communities close to aquaria or zoos that leaves mass media and the entertainment industry as the primary source of information about sharks.
News reports often describe shark-bite incidents as “horrific,” “gruesome” or “vicious.”
“The mass hysteria that ensues hinders conservation efforts,” said Nosal.
In January, a paper in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (http://bit.ly/15e894W) called upon scientists, the media and policy makers to move away from inflammatory language that amounts to “the criminalization” of normal shark behavior.
“Even the phrase ‘shark attack’ implies intent,” Nosal said.
When it comes to the portrayal of sharks on the big screen, think back to the 1975 summer blockbuster “Jaws.” Even if you’re too young to remember the film, there have been more than 50 shark-themed movies released in the intervening 38 years in which sharks are sensationalized as bloodthirsty killers.
Even nature documentaries are not blameless. The next time you watch one, pay attention to the music. In scenes involving sharks, the music is often sinister – adding commentary and mood without saying a word.
“Why do dolphins get all the happy music?” asked Nosal.
Why are sharks hunted?
Throughout history, sharks have been hunted for their meat, oil, teeth and hides. But a growing demand in recent decades for shark-fin soup – an Asian delicacy served at lavish weddings and special-event banquets – has tipped the balance against sharks. To meet the current demand requires 73 million fins annually. Harvested through “finning,” this involves slicing the fins off live sharks and then discarding the animal at sea to drown or bleed to death.
Efforts to outlaw the cruel, wasteful practice are gaining traction, albeit slowly. Local laws and international treaties only go so far without addressing long-held cultural practices.
TV and social media campaigns by nonprofit conservation groups are attempting to make consuming shark fin socially unacceptable. Chinese celebrities have joined in this effort, including actor Jackie Chan and former NBA star Yao Ming.
Several airlines have announced they will stop transporting shark fins as cargo. And, last year, the prestigious Peninsula Hotel and its parent company stopped serving shark fin and related products in its restaurants and banquet facilities throughout Asia.
But, don’t assume this is only an overseas issue. “In San Diego, there were once 20 restaurants that served shark-fin soup,” according to Nosal.
California has joined Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Guam in banning the sale and possession of shark fin. In New York, a similar law currently awaits Gov. Cuomo’s signature.
What can the average person do to help shark conservation? Make smart consumer choices: Don’t buy shark meat. Don’t eat shark-fin soup. If you fish, release the sharks you catch.
Nosal began and ended his lecture with the statement: “We must love sharks as much as we love dolphins.”
As an introduction, this drew a few chuckles from the audience. As a conclusion to his remarks, it drew sustained applause and affirmative nods.
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