Australia’s shark cull angers conservationists. But in Indonesia, it’s business as usual for the world’s biggest shark fishery
The tuna fishermen use a crane to lift the clutch of frozen sharks onto a flat bed truck backed up on the edge of the wharf at Benoa harbour in Bali, Indonesia. The sharks’ heads and dorsal fins are missing, but the crane operator obligingly tells me what species they are – hammerhead, saw tooth and oceanic white tip.
More loads follow, including five canvas bags packed with fins destined for soup. Much of the shark meat will be processed for the domestic market – but the tuna is destined for consumers in Europe, America and Japan, few of whom realise they’re implicated in the killing of sharks on a massive scale.
Scores of boats like this dock here every week – there are more than 33,000 purse seiners operating in Indonesia, the world’s number one producer of tuna. The shark are technically bycatch, but they’d be more accurately described as valuable byproduct. And the sheer numbers being caught are shocking.
Even more alarming is the fact that all three of the shark species mentioned above are on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species. There are many other ‘hub’ ports in this sprawling archipelagic nation of 250m where sharks are offloaded in similar numbers both for export and domestic consumption.
Indonesia catches on average 109,000 tonnes of shark per year, giving it the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest shark fishery. And it’s the country’s tuna industry that’s largely responsible for driving it.
“Many conservation efforts have focused on small-scale artisanal fisheries,” says Andrew Harvey, the Sustainable Fisheries team leader for USAid’s Indonesia Marine & Climate Support (IMACS) project. “But the industrial fishing fleets also have an important impact on shark populations. The big problem is a total lack of management regulations for most shark species — no catch quotas, no minimum sizes, and no fishing bans.”
There is evidence that a combination of campaigning and legislation is reducing demand for shark fins in Hong Kong and Mainland China. But shark flesh is an important source of protein for many coastal communities in Indonesia and the meat is sold everywhere including in supermarkets. There are also signs of an upsurge in the sale of baby sharks, which are routinely stocked by many of the big supermarket chains. Sharks have long reproductive cycles so targeting juveniles can have a destructive impact on wild populations.
According to Harvey, Indonesia signed the United Nations International Plan for Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in 1999, and has been developing a national plan of action ever since:
While some progress has been made, the current version of this plan is insufficient to sustain shark populations or the fisheries that harvest them. The plan urgently needs to be strengthened, with full protection proposed for the most vulnerable species, and minimum sizes, catch quotas or other harvest controls for other, more resilient species harvested by both artisanal and industrial fisheries.
Despite the absence of a strong national plan of action, there is some evidence that governance is slowly moving in the right direction.
In 2013, IMACS helped Indonesia’s ministry of marine affairs and fisheries to launch a national onboard observer programme, with fishery officers deployed to fishing vessels to monitor compliance and record details of the bycatch. Over the past year 150 onboard observers have been recruited and trained, but there is still a long way to go.
The US initiative has also helped to develop a new approach to fisheries information known as I-Fish, which has now been handed over to the government of Indonesia. “I-Fish uses cutting edge technologies to streamline the transfer of fisheries information throughout Indonesia. It is also a way for the fishing industry and government to work together, to enhance fisheries data, transparency and management.”
Perhaps the biggest win for sharks came in 2010 when the district government of Raja Ampat in West Papua, the world’s epicentre of marine biodiversity and a popular dive destination, was declared a shark and manta sanctuary. This designation was the first of its kind in the entire coral triangle bioregion, which encompasses the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.
West Manggarai, another district that is a rich repository of marine life and includes the Komodo national park world heritage site, took a similar step soon after. These locally-led conservation initiatives were unprecedented in Indonesia, and the national government responded by declaring the entire nation a manta sanctuary in early 2014.
But widespread, definitive action on sharks has yet to take place.
Currently, only whale shark, thresher and saw tooth are protected under Indonesian law (Cites protection only applies to the export of endangered species). Hammerheads and oceanic white tips should soon follow suit.
These are all first steps – gathering and assessing baseline data, establishing policies, protecting a few key ecosystems. But the big challenge is enforcement in a maritime nation made up of more than 17,000 islands where tens of millions of people rely on fishing for their livelihood.
In economic terms, there’s compelling evidence that sharks are worth more alive than dead. Not only do they play a critical role in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystems, they’re of huge value to the tourism industry. A 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Palau showed that a single reef shark was worth $1.9m over its lifetime to the tourism industry there.
It’s no coincidence that two of Indonesia’s top dive destinations are leading the way in shark protection. Bottom-up initiatives like these – driven by conservation minded dive operators, NGOs and local government – are making a difference in coastal areas and amongst small scale artisanal fishing communities. “But who is championing the fight further offshore, where large scale industrial fleets are landing scores of sharks every day?” asks Harvey.
Protection of these sharks, let alone a countrywide ban on shark fishing is a long way away. Until then, unless you’re buying pole & line caught tuna certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, those dead baby sharks may as well be sitting on our supermarket shelves.
By Jason G. Goldman
Stop fishing, and there will be more fish. That’s the idea, at least. Indeed, sharks were more abundant in no-fishing zones in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) than in spots where fishing is allowed according to a new study just published by a group of Australian researchers. But the story is actually more complicated than that.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most important hotspots of marine biodiversity on the planet. Within it, elasmobranchs – sharks, rays, and skates – are a particularly diverse group. The reef is home to 134 species from 31 families, and 60% of those are sharks. Despite the fact that some sharks are eaten themselves, the main role that sharks play in balancing their ecosystems is because they’re predators. When apex predators are disturbed – such as by intentional fishing or fisheries bycatch – the entire ecosystem can crumble. That’s what happened, famously, when wolves were driven out of the Yellowstone ecosystem, for example.
Around a third of the GBRMP has been designated as “no-take” zones, closed to all forms of fishing. For species that stick close to home, like the grey reef shark, protecting them is as easy as protecting the reefs on which they spend their lives. But other species are more mobile, which makes them harder to protected. It’s thought that networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) offer protection for those species by reducing their chances of encountering a fishing line, trawl, or gillnet. Historically, it’s been difficult to quantify the effects of marine protected areas on the species they intended to protect, but James Cook University researcher Mario Espinoza and colleagues have ten years of data from a network of thousands of underwater cameras along the Great Barrier Reef.
In all, they recorded 21 shark species from five families and two taxonomic orders. Four species were responsible for 64% of their observations: Grey reef sharks, silvertip sharks, tiger sharks, and sliteye sharks.
Do MPAs within the GBRMP have their intended effect on sharks? In some sense, they do. “This study demonstrated that shark abundances were significantly higher in non-fished sites, highlighting the conservation value of the GBRMP zoning for sharks,” though the effects varied from species to species. However, protection from fisheries alone wasn’t sufficient. Even within protected areas, abundance was highest in spots with healthy coral. Over the last two decades, the GBR has seen coral cover decline by half, thanks primarily to more tropical cyclones, an increase in coral predation by the crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching. It could even be that where MPAs are successful, that’s because of healthy reefs, rather than the reverse, with MPAs leading to increased reef health.
The researchers speculate that may be the case, writing, “our results showed that hard coral cover had a significant effect on the abundance of reef-associated sharks at non-fished sites while the effect of [the amount of time since the MPA was re-zoned as no-take] was variable, suggesting that coral cover may be an important driver in the success of MPAs.” The reverse can also be true: if reef sharks are removed, the entire ecosystem can become unbalanced, resulting in loss of coral. The relationship between coral health and shark populations is, like all things in ecology, more complicated than it may first appear.
At least one thing is clear, though: the re-zoning of the GBRMP as no-take has been beneficial, at least for some species.
More generally, the study underscores the importance of detailed ecological data in assessing conservation measures. Until now, shark abundance data has been lacking for the Great Barrier Reef, and this study “provided a valuable contribution to the understanding of species-specific habitat associations in response to a range of drivers,” says Espinoza. To predict shark distribution patterns requires understanding the factors that underlie their distribution; in this case, hard coral cover. Only with that level of detail can effective conservation and management procedures be implemented.
Source: Espinoza M, Cappo M, Heupel MR, Tobin AJ, Simpfendorfer CA (2014) Quantifying Shark Distribution Patterns and Species-Habitat Associations: Implications of Marine Park Zoning. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106885.
By DAVID McFADDEN
KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — The British Virgin Islands declared its territorial waters a sanctuary for all shark species Thursday to help protect the marine predators whose global numbers have been dramatically dwindling.
Kedrick Pickering, deputy premier and minister for natural resources, said the loss of sharks disrupts the predator-prey balance, compromising the health of oceans and reefs and the survival of other marine creatures.
"The best way to manage their populations is to let them fulfill their ecological role as apex predators," Pickering said at a conference in Belgium.
The Cabinet of the British Caribbean archipelago of roughly 60 small islands, cays and islets banned commercial fishing of all shark species in the 30,933 square miles (80,117 square kilometers) of its exclusive economic zone.
Shark fishing has grown rapidly in recent decades, driven by rising demand, mainly in China, for shark fin soup. Because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing. Experts say roughly 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries around the globe.
It's far from clear how robustly the tourism-dependent British territory will police its waters, which are home to coral reefs where divers can spot such shark species as scalloped hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and reef sharks.
The territory of about 25,000 people said it is also protecting rays, whose numbers have sharply dwindled over the years. Researchers with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have said roughly one-quarter of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
The sanctuary announcement was applauded by the territory's most famous resident, British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson.
Branson, CEO and founder of the Virgin Group of companies, has been pushing Caribbean governments to better protect marine environments, making special mention of sharks and rays. At a conference Branson hosted on his private island last year, several regional governments committed to establishing shark protections by May 2015.
"The British Virgin Islands has shown leadership here and I urge other countries and territories in the region to follow suit to create a Caribbean-wide sanctuary to protect these magnificent animals," Branson said in an email.
The territory joins Honduras and the Bahamas as the first governments in the Americas to declare shark sanctuaries, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, which has pushed shark conservation efforts around the world. The world's first shark sanctuary was created in 2009 by the Pacific nation of Palau.
The Caribbean territory is "showing that small islands can have a big impact on global biodiversity," Pew's Angelo Villagomez said.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd
by Geoff Brumfiel
Sharks have looked more or less the same for hundreds of millions of years. But a newly discovered fossil suggests that under the hood, a modern shark is very different from its ancient ancestors.
The finding, , strongly implies that sharks are not the "living fossils" many paleontologists once thought they were. "They have evolved through time to improve upon the basic model," says , a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History who helped identify the fossil.
This newly discovered creature dates back 325 million years. It's no . It was probably just 2 or 3 feet long and its teeth were tiny, "although there are rows of teeth in the mouth, so it would certainly give you a painful nip," Maisey says.
The fossil of this beastie is equally modest: It looks like an . But in recent years, paleontologists have begun using tools like CT scanners to look inside fossils. When Maisey scanned the fossilized head of the new shark, he got a shock. Inside, "it's not like the anatomy of a modern shark at all," he says.
The skeleton supporting this ancient shark's gills is completely different from a modern shark's. In fact, the gill skeleton looks much more like that of an average modern-day fish.
The finding turns old ideas about sharks on their head, says , an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. Previously, many scientists had believed that shark gills were an ancient system that predated modern fish. But this new work suggests that modern-day fish may actually be the ones with the ancient gill structures. Shark gills are the gills that evolved.
"That bucks a trend that's been in the literature for years and years that sharks are somehow primitive living fossils," Coates says.
Why did sharks change the structure of their gills? Maisey suggests it might be to help them sprint after prey. Or to open their jaws more widely, so they could snap up bigger things, like swimmers.
Whatever the reason, sharks have been changing. at Uppsala University in Sweden says the new work is an important reminder that so-called living fossils like sharks and crocodiles aren't fossils at all. They are constantly adapting to the world around them. "We have to be very, very careful with the idea of living fossils," Ahlberg says.
This ancient little shark shows that evolution is always at work.
By By Douglas Main, Staff Writer December 5, 2013 9:29
A tumor on the lower jaw of a great white shark, near the Neptune Islands, South Australia. Scientists have known for more than 150 years that sharks get cancer. And yet the belief persists that the animals don't suffer from the disease.
That misconception is promoted in part by those who sell shark cartilage, who claim that the substance will help cure cancer, said David Shiffman, a shark researcher and doctoral student at the University of Miami. But no studies have shown that shark cartilage is an effective treatment, and the demand for the material has helped decimate shark populations, researchers say: Humans kill about 100 million sharks per year, according to a March 2013 study (although many factors contribute to the killing of sharks, including demand for shark-fin soup).
Recently, researchers in Australia noticed a large tumor protruding from the mouth of a great white shark, as well as another mass on the head of a bronze whaler shark. The great white's tumor measured 1 foot (30 centimeters) long and 1 foot wide, according to a study describing the tumors published online in November in the Journal of Fish Diseases.
"This was a very unusual sight as we have never before seen a [great] white shark with tumors," said Rachel Robbins, a study co-author and shark biologist at the Fox Shark Research Foundation, near Adelaide, in southern Australia. [Image Gallery: Great White Sharks]
In total, scientists have now documented tumors in at least 23 species of sharks, including the two in the new study, Robbins said. "The main take-home message from the study is that it adds to the growing evidence of tumor formation in sharks, contrary to popular belief that sharks do not suffer from such anomalies," Robbins told LiveScience.
"Sharks get cancer," said Shiffman, who wasn't involved in the study. "Even if they didn't get cancer, eating shark products won't cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball."
The belief that shark cartilage can treat cancer diverts patients from effective treatments, according to a 2004 review in the journal Cancer Research. The demand for cartilage also fuels widespread fishing for sharks. One in six known species of sharks, rays and skates are considered threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental group, Shiffman said.
It's unknown what caused the tumors in the great white or bronzer shark. However, reports of cancerous tumors in marine animals, especially mammals, have steadily increased over the past 20 years, raising concerns that industrial pollutants or human activities may trigger the cancers, according to the study. Beluga whales have been recorded to suffer from cancer, and in areas near aluminum smelting plants, cancer is the second leading killer of the whales, the study noted.
Email Douglas Main or follow him on Twitter or Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook or Google+. Article originally on LiveScience.
By Terry Lilley - Notice all the shark attacks lately off the island of Maui?
I know why they are happening. I have been buzzed by 18-foot hammer heads, Galapagos sharks, aggressive sand bar sharks and tiger sharks all within the last year while spear fishing or kayak fishing.
Just ask the dive shop owners. The increase in spear fishing has more than tripled in the last few years. It has become very popular and the sharks know it.
The sharks are learning to follow spear fishermen and kayak fishermen to get a free meal. I have had many fish taken by these sharks right off the end of my spear, including an attempt on Thanksgiving day.
We fishermen should rotate where we spear fish. If you go out at the same places every time, the sharks will wait for humans to catch their food for them. They look at a kayak or spear gun as a source for food.
I do not spear fish at Tunnels off Kauai any longer because the one 10-foot female Galapagos follows me around like a puppy waiting for me to spear a fish and then she steals it. If my arm is in the way, I would be bit.
In old Hawaiian times, fishermen rotated where they fished so the sharks would not be trained by the people as to where they are going to find dinner.
The sharks never try to harm humans and I have made friends with a number of large sharks that I dive with and video. They are just doing what sharks should do. Eat wounded fish. Killing the sharks would be stupid and would ruin our marine ecosystem.
If you feed the neighborhood dogs free steaks everyday at the park, you better believe the dogs will be there waiting for you. They will soon jump right in your car window to get food.
We need to rotate where we fish like the Hawaiians have done for thousands of years.