By Katherine Nichols
Sharks are the most feared animal in the ocean. They reside at the top of the food chain. And they may just now be emerging from a crisis.
John NaughtonNew laws have reduced the number of sharks killed for their fins. The tendency to call for a shark hunt after a shark attack is lessening. And habitats of near-shore sharks are starting to get protection.
But how could something so powerful have become imperiled in the first place? Because, say the animals' defenders, humans have long undervalued the role of sharks in the ocean ecosystem.
Maui cultural expert Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. of Maui said the media and movies like "Jaws" are largely responsible. "Sharks are promoted as vicious killing machines," he said, noting that bears and wolves have a similar reputation and are also endangered.
Lately, this seems to be changing. Said William Aila Jr., a fisherman in Wai'anae, "There's less killing of sharks for no reason, because (people) understand that sharks have a role in the environment."
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports that in 1999, 87,576 sharks were caught on longlines in Hawaiian waters, and about 29,000 of them were released alive. And 57,286 were finned.
Used for soup
Finning involves killing the shark, cutting off the fins, then dumping the carcass back in the ocean. The stringy tendrils of fin flesh are the prized ingredient that lend a characteristic texture to shark fin soup. In a 1999 CNN report, fishermen said there is little demand for shark meat, which is heavy in uric acid. But fins, which sell for $18-$70 per pound, can be lucrative.
"It's like cutting off your arms and legs and throwing you back into your home," said Maxwell, who called finning "cruel."
Recent legislation, however, has curtailed the practice, at least in the United States. A Hawai'i law prohibiting the landing of fins took effect in July, and the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which outlaws shark finning nationwide, including the waters off American Samoa and Guam, became federal law on Dec. 21.
Paul Dalzell, pelagic coordinator for the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, said the laws will reduce finning, but he noted that only the landing of fins, not finning itself, is banned. In other words, the volume of fins brought to shore must not exceed a set ratio to the volume of torsos.
A fishing vessel theoretically could bring the entire shark to shore, have its catch weighed, then cut off the fins and dump the carcasses.
But this is unlikely to happen, said Bob Endreson, education coordinator for Western Pacific Fisheries Coalition, president of the Hawai'i Fishermen's Foundation, and a fisherman for 40 years. "It's not good economics," he said. "Shark takes up too much room and burn up too much ice."
There is little market for the meat of the blue shark, the most widely finned in Hawai'i because of its abundance and its shared territory with tuna and swordfish. (Tiger and hammerhead sharks yield the most desirable fins.)
The epicenter of the shark fin trade is Hong Kong. Said Dalzell: "It's a very secretive and closed business."
How will authorities enforce the laws? In several ways.
Dalzell said the Coast Guard boards about 30 percent of longline vessels each year. However, it is not illegal to hold fins at sea. What the Coast Guard can do is warn authorities at the docks if an inordinate number of fins are found on board. On shore, the state monitors dealers and tags offenders with cumulative penalties.
Dalzell said finning only threatens pelagic (open ocean) predators, like the blue shark, because the open ocean is where most of the fishing occurs.
But near-shore species, like tigers and grey reefs, have their own problems: Their food supply is vanishing.
Imperiled food supply
John Naughton, Pacific Islands environmental coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the State Shark Task Force, said sharks that reside on the offshore slopes of islands have very little area in which to live and breed, and their "stock is extremely small relative to pelagic species."
Sharks, he said, don't have a high reproductive rate, and near-shore sharks are "generally impacted by anything that affects the well-being of reefs, like dredging and run-off." Fishing and spearfishing around the reef also affect a shark's food supply, which includes smaller reef fish, turtles, and octopuses.
Progress is also under way to curtail another problem for sharks. At one time, hunters killed sharks for jaw displays and bragging rights, and it used to be standard practice to initiate cullings in an area following a shark attack.
But Naughton pointed out, "We know that the eradication program of the early 1990s is not the way to go. Sharks are a valuable fishery resource and an important part of the ecosystem."
Maxwell put it more bluntly:
"If it weren't for sharks, the ocean would be a cesspool. Sharks eat everything."
Both men noted that that humans are not a primary food source for sharks. "Usually, it's a case of mistaken identity," Maxwell said. In support of this
argument, Naughton noted that sharks rarely bite humans more than once and seldom follow through with an attack.
And both men say that trying to kill the "guilty" shark after an attack is often futile; sharks have large home ranges, and the shark in question almost certainly has moved on.
The State Shark Task Force was disbanded in the mid-1990s, then reactivated in early 1999 when five attacks occurred. (There were only two serious attacks last year.) The task force's goal now is to be proactive, conducting aerial and vessel surveys of attack areas and, in rare cases, killing an exceptionally large tiger shark.
Any shark caught by the task force is studied carefully before it is given to Hawaiians, who use the entire carcass.
Based on bite or tooth analyses, most culprits appear to be tiger sharks. Great whites are found in Hawai'i, but rarely.
Sharks have excellent vision and a keen sense of smell, plus the instinct for survival that enabled them to outlast even the dinosaurs. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can outlast the human invasion of their home.
Maxwell said people must respect that the sea is the shark's home, not a playground for humans: "The ocean is not a bathtub."