Sharks….. we need them

Esther Jacobs Overbeeke

Sharks have been dealt a poor hand. They are demonized by the media and film industry because that’s what sells papers and movies. It doesn’t help that most species aren’t particularly cute (case and point: the false catshark, Pseudotriakis microdon caught in Scottish waters in October 2015) so we can’t humanize them like we do with dolphins and other charming marine animals. However, sharks are absolutely vital for the health of our oceans, and in turn, the future of our planet.

Overfishing, finning, shark fishing tournaments, bycatch and longlining are all massively reducing our shark populations. Fishing practices like those encouraged by SSACN, pole and line fishing, should be the only methods used. Trawling is very destructive and unselective as the nets haul every life encountered. With longlining, boats spool out hundreds of feet of fishing line with up to 2,000 baited hooks spread along its length. With both these methods, a vast number of marine species, known as ‘bycatch’ are caught and thrown overboard dead or dying, including those listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered.

Spurdog Squalus acanthias rIt was recently reported that thousands of spurdog are discarded into the sea dead annually in the UK. They get caught and crushed in the nets by trawlers pulling up massive catches from the depths. Bycatch amounts to up to 90% of a trawl’s haul and many of these are sharks due to their predatory nature. Global catches have increased by 300%, but much is unreported & unregulated so this figure is likely to be a lot higher. It would be great to see Scotland and the UK set an example with a drastic overhaul of fishing methods and quotas to ensure a sustainable future for UK seas.

Education amongst the angling community is also crucial and organizations like SSACN are not only valuable resources for information, but are proactive in encouraging best practices for sustainable fishing. With a recent report showing horrifying pictures of 40 dead cat sharks discarded on Chesil beach, by suspected anglers, angling conservation organizations need as much support as they can get to continue their positive messages to change these practices.

The most recent and accurate report states that up to 273 million sharks are killed each year. Sharks just cannot reproduce quickly enough to keep up with the demand and the only way to stop shark extinction is to stop the trades.

To envisage the vital role sharks play in our oceans, think about a fish tank and what needs to happen if one of the fish in that tank contracts a disease. You need to remove that fish from the tank before the disease spreads. Sharks prey on the diseased, the mutated, the injured and the weak, keeping the balance of our ocean’s ecosystem in check.

Sharks are at the top of the ocean food chain and their prey includes species that eat vegetation where the majority of the ocean’s carbon is stored, within seagrass, saltmarsh and mangrove. These blue carbon ecosystems, as they are called, capture and store carbon 40 times faster than rain forests and can store the carbon for thousands of years. Removing sharks from this ecosystem allows these vegetation eaters number’s to increase and results in a release of these ancient carbons and means that less carbon can be stored.

The oceans produce more oxygen than all the rain forests combined, provide a third of the world with food, remove half of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, and control our planet’s temperature and weather. Sharks and the oceans desperately need our help.

For individuals, other than ensuring best practice is used when fishing, there are easy ways to help save sharks:

  • Never buy make-up or health goods containing shark liver oil, known as squalene
  • Never buy products made of shagreen or shark leather
  • Never buy fresh shark teeth or jaws
  • Always ask what type of fish is being used for your fish and chips as restaurants / takeaways sometimes use shark a.k.a. rock salmon, rock eel, flake, huss or white fish
  • Never eat shark fin soup or support a restaurant that sells it

As a Scot living in South Africa working in shark conservation, I have a lot of work to do to change public misconception and fishing practices used here. I recently started a campaign called Keep Fin Alive featuring Fin, a hand-puppet shark on a mission to be photographed with as many people as possible holding a sign that says “I hugged a shark and I liked it… Keep Fin Alive”. He’s already been photographed with well-known actors, singers, chefs, photographers and scientists, including John Hannah, Adam Handling and Jamie Scott. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to take a light-hearted approach to help change the common misconception of sharks and drive more attention to the issues facing sharks.

Esther Jacobs Overbeeke lives in South Africa, is a Shark Conservationist and founder of  Keep Fin Alive

www.facebook.com/keepfinalive

www.twitter.com/FinHugger

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