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The Most Misunderstood Species.

Why Sharks? Why are they on our list of focus studies? Why are sharks so important to us on Acadia & why should they be for you? For those of you who have never had the privilege to be up close and personal with any sharks in their habitat; it is a hard topic to comprehend.

Sharks are not the dangerous man killing animal that has been promoted and betrayed for so long, to those that dive, swim and research them they are calm, intelligent and necessary creatures that we are single handedly wiping out and causing their extinction. It is not news that sharks are a critical element in the marine ecosystems and their decline due to the human element of over fishing, by-catch and pollution has direct links to our above water ecosystems we live in, they also are being effected. It is so hard to understand how the human population is able to believe the media title of "Sharks being dangerous" when the average deaths a year sits below 10 people by shark attacks, in 2019 there were 5 fatal shark attacks of which 2 were classed as unprovoked, to view the annual data please visit this link.

With out getting up close and personal with these animals you will never appreciate just how inquisitive they are, but also their vulnerability. Any argument in favor of sharks is no different than a dog lover trying to convince someone who is scared of dogs or a breed of dog. That they are safe to be around, that they can be trusted and a beneficial animal to have in your life. In the past two decades a huge change in policy has allowed conservation to feel like it is pushing forward and getting progress. This from countries banning finning however, not commercial shipping of shark which results in easy back door legal ways to fish and ship the animals once caught.

Sharks have been living in the Earth’s oceans for over 450 million years, and have survived 5 mass extinctions.

The global economy of shark finning and a new demand for their meat in so many other industries has placed the species into a position that today; there are more sharks caught every year even with there being so many regulations and policies in place that did not exist 15 years ago. How is it possible that we can have a such a global supply chain and these days not just for shark fin soup, the attention to help this animal seems to also have had a big impact in promoting the value of it once caught. Shark meat is re labeled and sold in supermarkets as Rock Salmon for example, its a major component in animal food and cattle feed, you even have it present in cosmetics. Sharkwater as an example of one of many shark conservation teams placed a easily accessible window into the trade, world and status for all to see and be educated, even with the unfortunate and sad passing of Rob Stewart in the process he and his team placed a huge step forward in conservation and team still do to this day. The global presence of underground and illegal involvement of mafia and black market presence especially in the fishing ports is the easiest symbol of the value of a single fin, now multiply that by the latest estimated figures of 150 million sharks. This is the latest numbers a year that are estimated, this is direct and indirect by by-catch, for food sources and for commercial and medicine, of course like so many exotic animals it is to feed the Asian demand but also a growing western demand that is only now beginning to be understood.

However take aside the complete ignorance of humanity and see the issue into alternative ways, firstly what is the repercussions of shark numbers depletion on ecosystems & secondly the dangers of eating shark meat.

It is hard to express or visually represent this globally as there are so few locations around the world with a healthy shark population left. This is due to 90% of the shark bio mass already gone, these animals across the range of species can take up to 40 years to reach sexual maturity. It is impossible for an animal so in danger to reproduce at any kind of sustainable rate if we fish at the rate we do; with the knowledge we already have about the issues. There is all the proof in the world that there is no care for focusing fishing on only the large sharks as long line or gill net fishing for example is not controllable, you simply catch what ever comes into proximity including endangered sharks, turtles, whales and so much more, there is also no holding back on the catch of juvenile sharks in nursing areas in some parts of the world. It is very likely when you are eating a white fillet of fish it may be a baby reef or hammer head shark through Central America. This is due to the the HammerHead breeding grounds along the coast line stretching from Mexico to Ecuador. These sharks also being a species that migrate to the grounds from the Eastern Pacific therefore increasing their chances of being caught as they follow a well documented route in many cases which is an unprotected area. However, very simply sharks are a key stone building brick of the marine ecosystem, we use sharks, their number and health as a visual reference to a calculating ecosystem health. As apex predators, sharks play an important role in the ecosystem by maintaining the species below them in the food chain allowing them to serve as an indicator for ocean health in the researched area. They help remove the weak and the sick as well as keeping the balance with competitors helping to ensure species diversity. The loss of sharks has led to the decline in coral reefs, seagrass beds and the loss of commercial fisheries.

By taking sharks out of the coral reef ecosystem, the larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in abundance and feed on the herbivores. With less herbivores, macro-algae expands and coral can no longer compete, shifting the ecosystem to one of algae dominance, affecting the survival of the reef system.

A study in North Carolina, USA showed that the loss of the great sharks increased the ray  populations below them in the food chain. As a result, the hungry rays ate all the bay scallops, forcing the fishery too close. Without scallops to eat, the rays have moved on to other food options. The disappearance of scallops and clams demonstrates that the elimination of sharks can cause harm to the economy in addition to ecosystems.

Sharks are also influencing the economy through ecotourism. In the Bahamas, a single live reef shark  is worth $250,000 as a result of dive tourism versus a one time value of $50 when caught by a fisherman. One whale shark in Belize can bring in $2 million over its lifetime.

Of the 307 shark species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 50 are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, but only the white shark and basking sharks are protected internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Sharks now represent the greatest percentage of threatened marine species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

So already aware as science research on this as well as reports on climate change being forecasted from as early as the 70s, sharks are in danger and it has a direct link to an un-forecastable ending if we carry on reducing their numbers as we are from the ocean. What about the unknown? Very lightly reported but still already researched is the danger of eating shark meat. As we continue to contaminate the oceans which directly affects fish and other marine life which absorb some of the bio-toxins and even heavy metals. Toxins multiply each time they move up in the food chain pyramid, this process is called biomagnification. We all know sharks are up there at the top of the food chain alongside very few other animals, as sharks feed on different marine life, which have already fed on other fish lower than them in the food chain, they begin to accumulate the levels of mercury, toxins and heavy metals that become unsafe for humans to consume. We are well aware of this in dolphins and other predatory fish, why are we not aware it is no different in sharks?

Follow this link to a page on Kieko Conservation's excellent write up on the toxins and health risks of shark meat and how hard it is to argue with their verdict.

All personal feelings towards sharks aside, it's hard to argue that eating their meat can't cause us alarming harm both directly and indirectly! As the shark meat trade explodes overseas and we get closer and closer to wiping out sharks completely, the catastrophic effect it is having on the ocean is becoming scarily tangible. There's no such thing as a healthy shark-less ocean. The ocean needs sharks and we need the ocean, no matter how far we live from it.

So what is the next global step, Acadia is already working alongside and has teamed up with multiple research teams on the topic of shark conservation with a focus on the migratory Eastern Pacific Sharks, like one of our favorites the Scalloped Hammerhead; Sphyrna Lewini. We are working to provide a developing platform for scientists around the eastern pacific and hope to assist in the growing need for protected areas, migration research and primarily awareness of the threat these animals are under and how it will effect all of us.

Alongside the difficulty of policy changing in government, obtaining time to get countries working together and place politics aside to better enlarge protected areas and actually create productive ways of protecting them, there is a much larger issue on the ground level. Starting with an unfair example of the fishing communities all down the Central American coast. This population rely on fishing as their source of income and food, the illegal and black market presence running the demand prevents an easy outcome, you must also respect that these individuals and family do not have other options as they are poor, in a poor area with no other alternatives, they know no different with no awareness to the global crisis. However with the right environment, potentially they would happily move away from fishing sharks, especially the juvenile ones if presented to them. In the Pacific shore of Panama a single decent size shark fin will place 5$USD in the hand of the fisherman, to them this is a way to feed and house their family, however that same fin is valued out in its destination in Asia at 200$USD. Without Governments willing to work together, the removal of pay outs and corruption in the industry miraculously being controlled and each time actually enforcing new policy that are not designed with easily used loop holes we do not have a likely chance to save this species at the rate we are wiping them out. This is so important to promote the crisis that is facing us, educate the dangers that are present and focus sustainability across the board as a basis of education, not just once we have no other option.

"Conservation is the preservation of human life on Earth." Rob Stewart.

By Guy Dodwell SY Acadia Captain.

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