By Dona Bertarelli
I want to thank all our partner schools, in France and Switzerland, and the 2,000 students who are following us. Whenever I can, I will be answering your many questions throughout this journey around the planet, a journey that we are taking together to discover the wonders of our world.
With all the crew of Spindrift 2, through our observations and our encounters, not only with marine life, but also with the islands and peninsulas that we pass, with the meteorological phenomena we experience, and with the birds and the stars that accompany us during our voyage, we will help you to live this adventure, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous book. We are calling our Spindrift for Schools series - Out of the Classroom.
From fables and literature to Hollywood and children’s cartoons, no oceanic creatures have been so extensively caricatured and vilified as sharks.
They are the token bad guys in the world’s most popular swimming pool game, and their name has been stolen as a label for the most devious and dangerous of men.
It is time to set the record straight.
Sharks have roamed our oceans since before dinosaurs walked the Earth, and are among the most fascinating and diverse animals on the planet. Some shark species give birth to live young, while others lay eggs. Most eat fish, while a few filter plankton for food. Sharks can be found from ankle-deep flats to the lightless recesses of the deep sea. Because they are often the top predators in the ocean, sharks help regulate the abundance of other species in the marine food chain —a key role in maintaining the health of the world’s oceans.
Yet despite their importance to ocean health, sharks are in trouble. They have been hunted for food, sport, money, and misguided vengeance throughout the world’s oceans at an accelerating rate over the past several decades. Much of the market for sharks is linked to the growing demand for their fins although the market for shark liver and shark meat has also increased. Scientists now estimate that about 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, a staggering and deeply unsustainable number that is pushing some species toward extinction. About 50 percent of all known shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. Silky sharks and hammerhead sharks have been hunted to less than 20 percent of their former population, and oceanic whitetips, once ubiquitous in the world’s oceans, have declined by over 99 percent in some regions.
Many other types of sharks aren’t faring much better.
The precipitous decline in sharks is due mainly to the demand for shark fin soup in China and Southeast Asia, where it is considered a delicacy and a symbol of wealth and success. Those fins come from sharks caught worldwide.
Tens of millions of sharks are caught each year by fishermen targeting other fish, such as swordfish and tuna. This is referred to as "bycatch" or "accidental catch." In most cases, however, it is not accidental at all. It is the result of indiscriminate fishing gear that routinely catches non-targeted fish (as well as turtles, birds and other sea creatures) that are unwanted by fishermen, and thrown overboard dead or dying.
One of the most widespread and destructive of this type of equipment is pelagic longlines, monofilament lines that can stretch up to 40 miles behind a fishing vessel. Baited with thousands of hooks, a staggering number of marine species including fish, seabirds, sea turtles and numerous other sea-going creatures are also hooked as they attempt to take the bait, are dragged under the water and drowned.
The widespread killing of sharks must be stopped if these predators are to remain in the world's oceans. Their continued presence is important for many reasons, chief of which is the role they play in maintaining the balance of life in the sea. Like their counterparts on land—lions, tigers and wolves—sharks weed out the weak and the sick among the populations they prey on, and in so doing, help to ensure an appropriate and healthy balance of life in the ocean.
From an economic standpoint, studies show that in many areas, sharks are worth far more alive than they are dead. Many recreational divers and other ocean enthusiasts look for places to visit where the entire web of life is intact, from the smallest of sea snails to the largest of whales. One of the best indicators of a healthy marine ecosystem is the presence of sharks and other predators. Indeed, the lifetime value of one reef shark in many of these places can be well over tenfold that of a shark killed for its meat and fins.
Sharks grow slowly, reproduce relatively late in life, and have few young, factors that—coupled with continued, unchecked hunting—could put them on a fast track to extinction without aggressive conservation measures. Such efforts should cover three types of protection: reducing demand for shark products, particularly shark fin soup; establishing strong protections to safeguard sharks worldwide; and rigorously enforcing those protections.
The good news is that we are starting to see progress in all three of these areas.
In 2013, important steps were taken under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) to regulate the trade in five species of sharks that have suffered precipitous declines in recent years. Since then, a broad advocacy campaign by several conservation organizations has helped drive down the demand for shark products, even in Asia, where shark fin soup has been considered a status symbol and delicacy for generations. And in Hong Kong, which has been a global center for the international shark fin trade, nearly 70% of residents surveyed in 2014 had reduced or entirely stopped consuming shark fin soup, according to Bloom Associates and Hong Kong University.
Numerous countries have created sanctuaries to protect sharks. Among these are the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, which recently linked their sanctuaries together to form the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary, an area larger in size than the European Union and the first of its kind in the world.
A host of other countries have also established shark sanctuaries, from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Together, these sanctuaries encompass nearly 15.5 million square kilometers of ocean, an area twice the size of Australia.
For thousands of years, people have feared the presence of sharks in the ocean. Now, as we increase our understanding of the critical role that they play, we should fear their absence. Failure to do so will not only lead to the disappearance of animals that have inhabited the world’s oceans for the past 450 million years. It will also have a profound impact on human populations who depend on a healthy marine environment for food, jobs and a host of other benefits enjoyed by people worldwide.