Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)
Chapter 8. FISH FIGHT
As you may know, I was mauled by a shark thought to be a Great White on July 1, 1991 while surfing near Davenport, CA. My experience with the shark convinced me that sharks are an important part of the natural order of things. Any creature which is as well-adapted to its environment as the shark deserves a lot of respect.
—Eric Larsen, writing to California assemblyman Dan Hauser on April 17, 1993, in support of legislation protecting great white sharks off the California coast
Sonja Fordham’s colleagues gave her a nickname a few years ago: shark princess. Actually, she and several other women who dedicate themselves to conserving the sharks, skates, and rays that compose the elasmobranchs prefer another moniker to describe themselves: elasmobroads. “More gravitas,” she explains.
In the summer of 2006 a coalition of American environmental organizations banded together to form a group called the Shark Alliance, and they sent Fordham—a longtime advocate with the D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy, the kind of person who sports shark earrings as a conversation starter and discusses fisheries management policy with unbridled enthusiasm—to Brussels. The fact that three advocacy groups were funding her job did not mean it was a luxurious overseas posting. Paid in dollars at a time when the euro was rising, Fordham spent years working out of a small Brussels apartment. Many times she trekked to fisheries management meetings in an array of European cities, where officials often looked upon her with disdain as she nagged them to consider clamping down on the shark trade.
While concern about some environmental issues, such as climate change, has steadily intensified in recent years, attention to sharks has waxed and waned. In much of the world, policy makers are now willing to declare the issue merits action, but they are often loath to deliver on their promises. In some cases conservation initiatives have advanced through the political process, only to stall before becoming law. And even within some of the traditional bastions of environmentalism, these efforts can fall short. We may be on the cusp of a new approach to protecting sharks, but it will take a serious political push—and an unprecedented level of global cooperation—to make it work.
When it comes to most green issues, Europeans stand in the vanguard: they drive more compact cars than Americans, live in smaller houses, and rely more on renewable energy. But when it comes to the question of protecting sharks, they’re laggards. And that’s why Fordham moved from Washington, D.C., to Brussels—a town with not quite as many bureaucrats but much higher quality chocolate.
Until a few years ago, government officials on both sides of the Atlantic didn’t accept the concept that any fish could go extinct. Most fishery managers didn’t even keep track of shark catches until recent decades, because they did not view the fish as commercially valuable. A handful of marine scientists based in Canada changed that. Coming from diverse backgrounds—one hailing from a small town in Mississippi, another a French-born cosmopolitan of African American descent, and a third a young German—all of these researchers were irreverent, tireless, and willing to defy the conventional wisdom.
One of them, Daniel Pauly, now makes his home as a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia. While Pauly grew up and received his doctorate in fisheries biology in Europe, he devoted his early years as a researcher to living in disparate regions including Indonesia, western Africa, and the Philippines, where he examined how fishing activities were reshaping the ocean. The longer overfishing continues, he concluded, the more precipitously the quality of seafood dining will decline. He coined the phrase “fishing down the food web” to capture how our current fisheries system works: we kill off all the big, tasty fish, and when we’re through with them, we start pulling out the inferior, smaller fish. Before we know it, he warns, we’ll all be eating jellyfish.
Just as Pauly began receiving attention for his dire warning to gourmets across the world, Ransom A. Myers began making his academic mark. Born and raised in Lula, Mississippi, the son of a cotton plantation owner, Myers decided to focus on studying fish after sailing from Africa to the Caribbean in a twenty-eight-foot boat, and settled at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.1
Myers—called Ram, a nickname derived from his initials—revolutionized the way researchers calculated the abundance of fish, poring over old catch records to chart massive declines. A quirky academic who padded around campus sporting white socks underneath his sandals, he used numbers to prove his point that fishing fleets were effectively wiping out species after species. He initially focused on cod, one of Canada’s most commercially valuable species, showing the collapse of its once-robust cod population stemmed not from seals eating the fish but from overfishing. But then he shifted to top predatory fish such as sharks. In 2003 he published two papers with Dalhousie colleagues that reverberated through the popular press. The first made a small splash: written with Julia K. Baum and four other scientists, it documented that scalloped hammerhead, white, and thresher sharks in the northwest Atlantic had all declined by more than 75 percent in the past fifteen years. That same year Myers and Boris Worm, a charming German who had come to Nova Scotia to work with him, estimated that fishing had eliminated 90 percent of the ocean’s top predators, in an academic paper that made the front pages of newspapers across the globe.
In 2004, Baum and Myers published a scientific article that—using data collected by American long-lining vessels in the Gulf of Mexico—calculated the oceanic whitetip shark’s demise in precise terms. The shark had ranked as one of the most abundant sharks on earth during the first half of the twentieth century, but after comparing catch rates in the Gulf of Mexico between the 1950s and the 1990s, the two scientists realized the oceanic whitetip shark population had plummeted by more than 99 percent. The silky shark, another commonly caught shark in the region, declined 90 percent during the same period. And while their overall numbers shrank, so did their individual sizes: oceanic whitetip sharks in the 1990s were a third as big as they were forty years earlier, and silky sharks shrank by 83 percent. As a result, they now produce smaller litters.2 All of this happened, but no one realized it until Baum and Myers crunched the numbers.
“The oceanic whitetip shark may once have been the most abundant large wild animal on earth,” surmises Elliott Norse, who heads the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. “If, on land, the most abundant large animal disappeared, everyone would be talking about it. It would be considered an unmitigated environmental disaster. But it happened in the sea, and nobody was looking.”
A relentless worker, Myers only stopped producing when he was felled in 2006 by an inoperable brain tumor. He died at fifty-four on March 27, 2007; that week the journal Science published his last, groundbreaking paper: it provided convincing evidence that the decimation of sharks in the Atlantic had produced a cascade of unintended effects that were distorting ecosystems up and down the East Coast. He and his colleagues calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks declined by more than 97 percent, and bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. During that same period nearly all of the sharks’ prey species exploded: the cownose ray population off the East Coast expanded to as much as forty million. They became the thugs of the ocean, rampaging and pillaging in their quest to sustain their ever-rising numbers. Cownose rays eat tremendous amounts of bay scallops, oysters, and soft-shell and hard clams, and by 2004 their consumption of nearly all the adult scallops in the North Carolina sounds forced the state to shutter its century-old bay scallop fishery.
Charles H. “Pete” Peterson, a professor of marine sciences, biology, and ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored the paper, says its findings proved researchers had just “scratched the surface of the implications” of eliminating sharks from a given ecosystem.
Such findings, Elliott Norse argues, show humans have underestimated the extent to which they have changed what goes on beneath the ocean’s surface. And as the major fish have disappeared, people are waging battles over smaller fish that they didn’t even find desirable a generation ago, as French and Spanish fishermen fight over who has the right to catch more anchovies in the Mediterranean. “What we’re doing by removing sharks from the global marine ecosystems is we’re producing a massive, onetime uncontrolled experiment on the oceans. All over the world we’re seeing jellyfish explosions. We don’t know why. Now we’re arguing over the anchovies,” he says. “We have to live with the consequences, and I don’t want to live with the consequences.”
Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, describes this rapid accumulation of critical statistics as just one more indicator of the fatal flaw in how the world has approached environmental issues since the 1970s. The American buffalo’s near demise ultimately came about in the nineteenth century when people on the East Coast acquired a taste for the beast’s tongue: in response, hunters for hire slew thousands of them out on the range and left the animals’ bodies to rot after ripping out their most valuable asset. In the same way, he says, the growing demand for fins has prompted shark populations to plummet, a phenomenon researchers have documented even as policy makers have failed to act. “We’ve been steadily driving toward the edge of a cliff,” he says, “and taking meticulous notes along the way.” Or, as the National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubilet put it as he accepted a conservation award from the Blue Ocean Institute, “We are, in essence, seeing the actions of modern conquistadors: discovery, conversion, destruction.”
The extent to which humans can drain the ocean’s resources for our own consumption is breathtaking. Whaling provides one of the most vivid examples of this phenomenon. Phillip J. Clapham, a scientist in the National Marine Mammal Laboratory at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, describes it in one paper this way: “In terms of sheer biomass, the commercial hunting of whales in the 20th century represents one of the greatest wildlife exploitation episodes in human history.”3 In 101 years fishermen killed more than 200 million whales in the Southern Hemisphere alone. In several cases it took only a matter of decades to wipe out regional whale populations. Humpback whales migrating off New Zealand virtually disappeared after whaling stations operated at full force between 1912 and 1963, in part because Soviet fleets took 25,000 humpbacks in two seasons, between 1959 and 1961.4Even back in the seventeenth century, whalers could accomplish similar feats: bowhead whales congregated in the tens of thousands off Spitsbergen in 1610, but by 1670 the landing stations there “were forced to close because of the paucity of whales in coastal waters.”5 Long-lived animals that produce a limited number of offspring are the most vulnerable to collapse due to overfishing, since they lack the kind of resilience other species have. At least with whales, we have the ability to calculate these declines because the animals had a market value and fishermen counted how many they took in. With sharks, we weren’t even watching most of the time.
As researchers began to chronicle the rapid decline of sharks off America’s shores, U.S. authorities began to take notice. They are still struggling to take stock of exactly where these populations stand at this point: the NOAA fisheries biologist Enric Cortés, who is in charge of assessing every shark species off the East Coast, says bluntly, “When it comes to sharks, we have a long-term lack of data, both biological and in terms of fisheries.” But, he adds, no one doubts that they’re in trouble. “The general feeling among the community that studies sharks, especially for those who do population dynamics, is that there have been considerable declines.”
As with most environmental issues, California pioneered environmental protections for sharks long before any other part of the country. Prompted by studies researchers had been conducting off the Farallon Islands for a couple of decades, a group of activists in 1992 launched a campaign to protect great white sharks off the state’s coast. The move was both risky and novel: it had been only a year since South Africa became the first government in the world to decide to afford great whites legal protection. The coalition of scientists and environmentalists approached Dan Hauser, a Democrat who both represented the north coast and chaired the legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, and he agreed to introduce the bill. The group, which included kayakers, surfers, and recreational and commercial fishermen, argued that predators such as great whites helped maintain the coastal ecosystem on which state residents prided themselves. Local papers had long mocked the idea of stopping the killing of great whites—The San Diego Union-Tribune ran an article on March 12, 1991, joking that if you’re a fierce ocean predator that snacks on humans, “Where do you look for friends? Where else but California, amigo?”—and a shark strike against the surfer Eric Larsen off the coast provided plenty of ammunition for the measure’s foes. Yet the bill, AB 522, passed four legislative committees as well as the full assembly and senate without a single nay vote.
Still, the bill’s backers were unsure whether Pete Wilson, the state’s GOP governor at the time, would sign the measure into law. On August 12, 1993, a great white off the Mendocino coast took an abalone diver into its mouth before spitting him out, forcing him to swim nearly ninety feet to shore before his friends could help him out of the water. That incident, supporters of the measure feared, doomed the bill. As the legislative session dragged on, Hauser’s staff decided to take advantage of the fact that the assemblyman’s office faced Wilson’s offices, which lay just across the state capitol’s courtyard. The aides drew a poster of a shark fin poking above the waves, along with the message “Please sign AB 522.” On October 11—the last day Wilson could sign bills before they expired for the year—his aides posted a sign of their own in one of Wilson’s courtyard windows, showing they had noticed Hauser’s artistic lobbying efforts. It featured a shark with hot pink sunglasses leaping high above the water, mouth agape, and a message handwritten by the governor, saying, “Dan—Cordially, Pete Wilson.” He had signed the bill.6
U.S. authorities followed with shark protections of their own, and on December 21, 2000—just a month before leaving office—President Clinton signed into law the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, a landmark law that prohibited finning in U.S. waters. Unless a government demands that boats land sharks with their fins intact, authorities need to make elaborate calculations to ensure these operators aren’t taking sharks simply to supply the fin trade. A shark that comes onto shore has typically been “dressed,” meaning its head, fins, and guts have been removed. As a result, this dressed weight is half the full weight of a live shark, and the law Clinton signed dictated the fins brought ashore should not account for more than 5 percent of the total dressed weight of sharks on board. These restrictions applied only to ships sailing under the U.S. flag, however, not to foreign vessels in American waters.
Other countries have followed suit, but with varying degrees of success. The tiny country of Palau made history on September 25, 2009, when its president, Johnson Toribiong, declared the first nationwide shark sanctuary, banning shark fishing in all of Palau’s waters on the grounds that the activity threatened both the local ecosystem and the nation’s tourism industry. Within six months, both Honduras and the Maldives had taken similar measures, creating their own sanctuaries.
Nations including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and Oman have all taken the more modest step of imposing some sort of shark-finning restrictions. But while Ecuador imposed a ban on both shark harvesting and the export of shark fins in October 2004, Asian fishermen regularly catch sharks in areas such as the nationally protected Galápagos, sometimes with the assistance of Ecuadorean naval officers. Roughly 80 percent of Ecuador’s shark exports originate in the Galápagos: WildAid estimates that the monthly volume of dried shark fin coming from the archipelago’s largest island, Isabela, averages fifteen hundred kilograms, which equates to three thousand dead sharks.7 Illegal fishing operations continue to poach sharks from Costa Rica’s Cocos Island marine reserve and Panama’s Coiba National Park. Many of the pledges other countries have made, like signing on to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 1999 International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, have yet to translate into action.
Even well-meaning government officials in many countries often make tentative attempts to curb shark finning, only to encounter fierce political resistance. Yolanda Kakabadse, who served as Ecuador’s environment minister between 1998 and 2000, learned shortly after taking office that her plan to eliminate shark finning in the Galápagos had little chance of success. “In the Galápagos, the population is so small that every group is important,” she says. Artisanal fishing groups—a faction pitted against Kakabadse’s reform proposal—can actually mobilize voters, so she found little presidential support for her plan. Moreover, the fact that scientists have difficulty assessing the exact count of a given shark population made it impossible for her to make her case within the cabinet. “I couldn’t get the information I needed to back it up,” she explains.
Few activists have fought harder to push their government on the issue than Randall Arauz, president of the Costa Rican shark conservation group Pretoma. Arauz didn’t even start out focused on sharks; in the 1990s he and colleagues were monitoring leatherback turtles. In an effort to find out how fishing was damaging endangered leatherbacks, one of Arauz’s friends signed up to work on a fishing vessel and brought a video camera, claiming he was simply making home movies. In the process, he captured shark finning on video, and the activists realized that the leatherbacks were, in Arauz’s words, “collateral damage” in the drive to kill sharks. An end to shark finning and the twenty-five hundred international flag vessels cruising the eastern Pacific, they reasoned, would save the turtles as well.
In 2001, Pretoma launched a campaign to end shark finning. The Costa Rican fishermen were supportive; they didn’t see selling shark fins as an important source of income. In 2003, Pretoma secretly videotaped four boats landing shark fins on private docks, and its public relations campaign exploded, fueled by public outrage. But institutional forces in Costa Rica have thwarted Arauz’s efforts for over a decade. Representatives of large fishing interests dominate the workings of the Costa Rican Fishery and Aquaculture Institute, known by its initials, INCOPESCA, prompting regulators to adopt loophole-ridden rules time and time again. Arauz has challenged these regulations on multiple occasions, and he wins, but these court rulings have yet to translate into a sufficiently strong ban on finning. Costa Rica is seen from the outside as a world leader on a host of conservation causes, but Arauz argues his compatriots need to end their schizophrenic approach to fishing policy: “Are we going to be the shark savers of the world, or the culprits?”
International mechanisms to protect sharks remain a work in progress, since the global community has not demonstrated the political will to curb the activities that threaten sharks the most. David A. Balton, who has served as deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, sounds a little rueful when he talks about things like the UN’s 1999 International Plan of Action. “It had a lot of good words in it” is the way he puts it. When it comes to dealing with managing sharks in international waters—which, after all, is where most sharks swim—he says, “There aren’t that many governments that are hyped up about it, at least until recently. We’re a long way from where we need to be.” Issuing official statements about the need to preserve sharks is not the same thing as protecting them, especially when governments across the globe will have to collaborate on enforcing fishing restrictions on the high seas.
The Bush administration pressed for further restrictions close to shore, and in 2008 it adopted a rule mandating any shark landed from the Atlantic must have its fins attached—the strictest rule possible. Environmentalists still criticize the federal government for some aspects of its shark management, such as allowing the overfishing of spiny dogfish and sandbar sharks and still permitting the fishing of hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and porbeagle sharks, but they see the United States as the least of their problems as they push to halt sharks’ global decline. In 2010 Hawaii banned the sale, possession, or distribution of shark fins and fin products statewide, and the United States made fins attached the law of the land.
One of the biggest obstacles to adopting any meaningful protections for sharks is that they have to be negotiated in large unwieldy forums, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The fact that ICCAT doesn’t even have the word “shark” in its name gives a sense of how high they rank on the priority list. These sprawling international meetings are filled with all the drama and maneuvering of a high-school model-UN exercise, where delegates from pro-fishing countries such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland block consensus and use a variety of techniques to run down the clock as delegates pack their bags and prepare to leave. Since 2002, CITES has managed to impose stricter trade rules on three of the most charismatic shark species: basking, whale, and great white sharks. But when asked to provide protections for species that have real economic value, the delegates have balked.
Which is why, after spending several years lobbying to strengthen American laws on shark harvesting, Sonja Fordham decided she would be better off heading across the Atlantic to deal with the Europeans herself.
Europeans—who crave sharks for their meat rather than their fins—initially set their sights on their own fishing grounds, but have expanded these over time as they’ve depleted one area of the ocean after the other. Once shark populations took a dive in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, they turned to waters off America’s shores, but now they’re close to decimating those hunting grounds as well. U.S. authorities have started cracking down on shark catches in recent years, limiting the number of animals that can be brought to shore each year. At the moment the European Union is in the midst of a wrenching debate, as member nations discuss whether to alter the course of fishing they have pursued for centuries. Spaniards rank among the most aggressive fishermen in the world, and they have traditionally dictated the European Union’s shark-hunting rules. (Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France make up a fifth of the top twenty shark-fishing nations that account for 80 percent of the world’s catch.) This puts Spaniards and other Europeans among the world’s top suppliers as well as consumers: they now account for nearly a third of Hong Kong’s declared fin imports.
Enric Sala, a Spanish marine biologist who left academia to become an explorer in residence at National Geographic, knows what it’s like to live in a country obsessed with catching and eating fish. While he has tried his best to convince his countrymen that the world’s oceans are in trouble, they laugh at him. “My friends think I’m crazy, and whenever we go to a restaurant, they say, ‘Look, here’s all the fish we can’t eat.’ Not even my mother makes the connection,” he laments. Despite all the press about fish stocks running low worldwide, “the mentality in Spain hasn’t changed a bit. The problem is they know because we’ve told them, but they still don’t believe it.”
A 2008 study by Francesco Ferretti, an Italian who received his doctorate at Dalhousie University, testifies to this mentality. Ferretti and his colleagues examined the toll fishing in the Mediterranean over the past two centuries had taken on sharks, looking at the activities of the twenty-one different countries that use it as their fishing grounds. They were able to come up with comprehensive figures for five large, predatory shark species: the one that fared the best, blue sharks, declined 96 percent during that time. The one that suffered the most, hammerhead sharks, declined by more than 99 percent. Sharks, to put it bluntly, are faring worse in the Mediterranean than anywhere else in the world.
“In Malta, there were places where divers used to be able to see schools of hammerheads. Now it’s science fiction,” Ferretti says. “The fishing pressure is so intense it makes things hard for sharks to stay around.”
It’s not that Europeans lack shark-finning regulations: it’s just that they contain massive loopholes. In 2003 the EU adopted rules that allow fishing vessels to land fins that account for up to 5 percent of the live weight—rather than the dressed weight—of the total shark catch. Under this policy, member nations can determine how this translates as a percentage of the dressed weight, which is much lower than the whole weight. Spain and Portugal have decided this amounts to between 11 and 12 percent of the dressed weight, a ratio that is twice as lenient as the U.S. standard. On top of that, they can land carcasses and fins separately, which makes any controls meaningless.
Almost no ocean-wide international shark catch limits exist. The EU has set some restrictions on a handful of species in the North Sea, but these limits regularly exceed the numbers marine scientists recommend. A few people who have grown up on the North Sea, like Struan Stevenson, know exactly what that kind of activity portends for the ocean.
Stevenson was born in Ballantrae, Scotland, and after serving as a councilman in South Ayrshire for nearly a quarter of a century, he now spends much of his time in Brussels, arguing over fish. He is a green Conservative in the mold of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who imbues his environmental crusades with a bit of anti-regulatory rhetoric. First elected to the European Parliament in 1999, Stevenson chaired its Fisheries Committee between 2002 and 2004 while simultaneously holding the title of Conservative front-bench spokesman on fisheries. He remains a senior member on the Fisheries Committee and considers sharks a key part of his policy portfolio.
During the course of his lifetime Stevenson has seen the collapse of small towns that used to thrive on the “Cod is God” philosophy. Cod once filled the North Sea to such an extent, he says, “you could almost walk from Scotland to Norway on their backs.” Whole communities sprang up in his country based on fishing cod, but “they’re virtual ghost towns now.” Now a new phrase is gaining popularity in Scotland, as fishermen struggle with dwindling catch quotas and diminishing fish stocks: “Sod the cod.” Having seen Scottish fishermen’s livelihoods dry up, Stevenson now adheres to a precautionary approach when it comes to regulating the seas. Roughly translated, it goes something like this: setting fishing limits now will stave off disaster later.
The Spaniards have yet to accept Stevenson’s reasoning, arguing that activists are overestimating the risks associated with overfishing and that nations have the right to explore the seas to satisfy consumer demand. Spanish fishing interests have already scaled back their operations and reduced the number of vessels they send out to sea, they point out, so further limits would damage their livelihoods.
Debating rules over shark finning in the European Parliament has a sort of comedic quality. During a debate in September 2006, when the Spanish delegation was pushing to increase the catch for blue sharks, they circulated an amendment that was only in Spanish. One of the Spanish delegates informed Stevenson it wasn’t fair to put strict limits on the fin-body ratio for blue sharks, because the species have “massive fins, great big fins.” (This isn’t true, anatomically speaking.)
Ultimately, Stevenson’s side won a small victory when the European Parliament rejected a recommendation from its Fisheries Committee to weaken the shark-finning rules even further. But the vote was not binding, since it’s the European Commission, not the parliament, that sets regulations.
Even as he has made a small bit of progress within parliament, the red-haired Scotsman received a powerful reminder of the market forces driving the shark fin trade when he went to China on an official delegation trip in 2006. At every official dinner, he recalls, the menu included “shark’s fin soup, and shark’s fin this and shark’s fin that … It was salty and stringy. It was like thin string, like flat noodles.”
Even when Stevenson makes modest strides in Europe, he is faced with the reality that as long as Chinese consumers demand shark’s fin soup for every important occasion, sharks are headed off the precipice. It’s somewhat akin to the debate Americans and Europeans engage in when discussing what needs to be done in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming: even if the EU and the United States impose strict limits, climate change will accelerate as long as the Chinese build a power plant a week to expand their manufacturing base. Worldwide environmental problems require global solutions, which presents a formidable political and diplomatic challenge. Otherwise, the sharks that escape a European fisherman’s nets will simply be trapped by one in Asia.
Armando Astudillo winces a lot when discussing sharks; he is a true European bureaucrat, and a diplomat, and he doesn’t like discussing topics that are, in his word, “painful.” (This word comes up several times in our conversation.) Moreover, any fisheries discussion constitutes a political minefield for him as a Spaniard.
Astudillo, who used to oversee the EU’s fishing fleets before being promoted to head its environment and health unit, is more than willing to acknowledge the EU has not followed up on some of its conservation pledges. “At the end of the day, we didn’t do much in terms of a plan of action,” he says, referring to the 1999 international UN pact. “We take sharks as a resource.”
From Astudillo’s perspective, managing sharks poses a political and diplomatic problem for Europeans, since it pits one region of the European Union against another. Nongovernmental organizations have raised “a red flag” about the animals’ predicament, which is beginning to resonate with the public. At the same time, agreeing to end shark finning by establishing a ratio of the fin catch to the overall haul “was particularly painful for the Spanish and Portuguese industry … The question was very difficult, very painful.” And it’s impossible not to feel the Spaniards’ pain, he reasons. “In this world, the European Union, decisions are made by a majority within the community. The Spanish fleet is the most important one, in terms of fishing in general.” And Spanish fishing interests, he adds, continue to complain that they cannot meet the EU’s rather laid-back standard when it comes to sharks.
It’s not that Astudillo questions the scientific basis for these restrictions: he questions the European Union’s political will. “If you are willing to protect sharks, what we know now is sufficient,” he says. “The problem is, it is not an easy task. Some people would say, ‘Why bother?’ ” And Europeans, he adds, like their shark. “You can go into any market in Brussels, you can find blue shark, mako shark,” he points out. “I have actually tried it. It’s not bad at all.”
Spending just a few minutes with Javier Garat Pérez, secretary-general of Confederación Española de Pesca, gives one a sense of the delicate task EU officials such as Astudillo face. With 1,450 fishing companies as members, the association Garat heads ranks as the biggest in Europe. These companies own a total of 1,650 vessels, of which 500 are large ships. Garat is not afraid to spend time with environmentalists: he regularly journeys to meetings like the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which took place in Barcelona in October 2008. Garat preaches a message of moderation, saying that his members are just as interested in sustaining shark populations over the long term, because they have become concerned recently about the declining price of shark meat. “They say some species should be prohibited [from being caught]. We are ready to accept that,” he says of environmentalists. “What we hope to have is a future with shark fisheries. Now is when we want to take measures, to avoid worse measures in the future.”
But while Spanish fishermen are willing to make a few gestures toward conservation, such as reducing the size of their fleet through a buyout program and cutting back on the days the remaining vessels are at sea, Garat and his colleagues balk at the idea of landing sharks with their fins attached, or of tightening the fin-body weight ratio of shark landings to ensure that fishermen are not merely cutting off the animal’s fins before tossing it overboard.
“The profits will disappear. If we have to land the fins and body together, that will be the sentence of death to this fleet,” he says. “A long time ago, maybe twenty years ago, these long-liners were fishing only swordfish, and through bycatch they caught sharks. But the circumstances have changed over the last few years, and now we have a lot of vessels that are catching sharks. They are not bycatch; they are dedicated fisheries. Now they are very important to the economics of these companies.”
While the scientific evidence is mounting that shark populations cannot sustain the sort of fishing pressure they’re now under, translating these findings into policy remains challenging. Historically, fishing interests have never recognized the virtue of restraint, and instead relied on exploiting different species in succession in order to support their trade. Despite public pressure, the Spaniards are not ready to declare defeat when it comes to shark fishing.
Just over a year after Astudillo and I had a chance to talk, the EU published a “consultation document” aimed at finally producing an action plan for sharks. It contains many of the goals Fordham and her allies have been fighting for, including a fin-to-meat ratio of 5 percent of a shark’s dressed weight and a call to adhere to catch limits based on scientists’ recommendations. Now that the EU has released the document—which not only needs to be approved by EU officials but also must pass muster with Europe’s Council of Ministers and its parliament—fishing interests and environmentalists are hashing out the details in front of key decision makers.
While Sonja Fordham relocated to be in the fight, much of it takes place behind closed doors, where she can exercise little control over the outcome. “It’s so much more transparent in the U.S.,” she says. “At least you can go see the sausage being made.” In the United States, federal fisheries officials issue a public notice for a hearing and wait for anyone to show up. In Europe, policy makers hand out personal invitations.
Fordham finds herself making pilgrimages to hostile territory in Spain and France—provided she gets an invite. “I go and make a presentation. It’s not really welcome,” she acknowledges. “They sort of start out as gentlemen …” Fordham’s voice trails off. The fact that she usually ends up being pilloried goes unsaid.
But Fordham remains undaunted. She’s fine being seen as “the glaring American” at times, crusading for sharks. On occasion, she even passes as European, even if not as Mediterranean. “I got called a British woman the other day,” she recounts gleefully. In Fordham’s world, that’s progress. Rather than being considered a total outsider, she’s beginning to be accepted as a legitimate participant in the European debate over sharks.
In December 2008, the EU Council of Fisheries decided to ignore most of the shark catch recommendations made by the European Commission and independent scientists. Rather than abolishing the porbeagle and spurdog shark fisheries, the ministers just reduced the catch limits by 25 and 50 percent, respectively. France, which held the EU presidency at the time of the decision, engineered the outcome, because France operates Europe’s one remaining porbeagle fishery and was unwilling to shut it down. The vote marked a serious setback for Fordham, who had thought before the negotiations began that Europe was prepared to adopt strict fishing limits for the region’s most imperiled sharks. While the ministers agreed during the same meeting to fully protect angel sharks, a species that’s been decimated in Europe, Fordham remains convinced she and her allies aren’t making progress fast enough. “It really can be too late for sharks.”
But by April 2009, the EU Council of Fisheries appeared to be listening more closely to the concerns of Fordham and other environmentalists. It issued a document titled “Council Conclusions” endorsing a new EU Commission Shark Plan, which aims to broaden knowledge about sharks, ensure more sustainable catches, and reconcile the policies the EU espouses abroad and what it does at home. Even Spain is modifying its approach: in October 2009 it banned fishing eleven species of hammerhead and thresher sharks in its waters, making it the first EU member nation to do so. Spain doesn’t have a perfect record—its vessels continue to scour the high seas for commercially valuable sharks, and they’re still hauling illegally caught basking sharks onto land at Galicia and Asturias. But sharks’ allies are slowly making inroads in the halls of power.
Fordham had to pack up her bags in the summer of 2009—the funding for her post disappeared when the global recession hit, and she relocated to Washington to launch a new group, Shark Advocates International. Since then, shark conservation campaigns have only attracted a higher profile. Lesley Rochat runs the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay, South Africa, within walking distance of where surfers brave the bay’s shark-infested waters. Rochat, a photographer and filmmaker with a university degree in the dramatic arts, has taken an unorthodox approach to shark conservation. Sometimes it amounts to a performance art routine; other times it’s more like a Madison Avenue advertising campaign. But Rochat is focused on winning over her audience, and more often than not she succeeds.
Rochat’s career trajectory changed one day when she was photographing an exhibit at Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, which featured a ragged-tooth shark named Maxine. Maxine had been caught in one of the shark nets that surround Durban but survived and was released, only to be caught again near Cape Town. The shark was scarred in the process, and Rochat, intrigued by the back-story, launched a fund-raising campaign that eventually got Maxine released from captivity in 2004 with a satellite tag that tracked her initial movements.
While Maxine’s release attracted plenty of attention, Rochat decided she needed to enlist the aid of a professional ad firm in order to reach a broader audience. The Cape Town branch of Saatchi & Saatchi devised a clever set of advertisements under the banner of “Rethink the Shark,” an ironic take on the classic beach scene from Jaws. While the initial shots resemble the movie—a pleasant day at the beach that quickly devolves into a scene of panic—the scary object jutting out of the water in the end is not a shark’s fin. Instead, it’s an ordinary object that takes many more lives worldwide each year than sharks: a toaster, a kite, or a chair, depending on the commercial. It’s an effective ad, partly because the inanimate objects are so banal. As the toaster floats, seemingly harmless, the tagline reads, “Last year 791 people were killed by defective toasters. 4 by sharks.”
Rochat didn’t stop with a single ad campaign. She’s come up with a slew of different ways to challenge popular perceptions of sharks. The shark tank in Two Oceans Aquarium now has a warning label posted on its inside stating, “Warning: Predators Beyond This Point.” The implication: humans are the predators, not the fish. In another public awareness stunt, Rochat littered a couple of South African beaches with shells that carried a recorded message from the sea, followed with messages in glass bottles from different creatures (Greg the Great White wrote, “Now I realize we have a BAD reputation because of that DAMN MOVIE, but we’re not like that”) and finally a coffin that washed ashore with a brass plate detailing the number of dolphins that drown each year in fishing nets. While Rochat’s main message is pretty grim, she does her best to leaven it with a bit of creativity. She chose to work with trained marketers because they think about how a message can infiltrate the public consciousness.
“Their skill is to take this complex subject and put it in a way that’s simple but powerful,” she explains as she pulls out sketches for the next ad campaign she and Saatchi & Saatchi are cooking up.
Groups across the globe have their respective pitchmen: the Pew Environment Group has got shark attack survivors to make the case for shark preservation, while Oceana enlisted January Jones, a Hollywood actor who has made her mark as the long-suffering suburban housewife Betty Draper on the television series Mad Men. In each case, the appeal is the same: we pose the real danger to sharks, not the other way around.
Oceana’s chief scientist, Michael Hirshfield, feels confident his group has gotten the right person to make its case. “It’s the surprise factor. It’s not your big macho surfer dude. It’s a petite actress, who instead of being afraid of sharks is afraid for them.”
There’s no question that Jones—a striking blonde who sported a formfitting black dress and high heels as she made her congressional rounds—is an effective lobbyist. A South Dakota native, she has gotten the state’s one Democratic senator, Tim Johnson, to co-sponsor a measure banning the finning of sharks in U.S. waters. Not only that, she has so endeared herself to McCain (who declined to press for shark conservation measures once he returned to the Senate in 2009, despite his campaign trail declarations) that he not only signed on to the same bill but gave her a thirty-minute tour of the Capitol and walked her to her car.
The day Jones launches her Capitol Hill charm offensive—September 30, 2009—Hirshfield is triumphant. “You heard it here first, it’s the turning point for sharks,” he says. “The day January Jones came to Washington.”
About six months later, representatives from 175 nations demonstrated that Hirshfield might be a little premature in declaring victory. The delegates who gathered at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora considered four separate proposals to protect eight species of sharks: scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead, dusky, sandbar, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle, and spiny dogfish. The small island nation of Palau—which created its shark sanctuary just days before January Jones was paying her courtesy calls at the Senate—had joined forces with the United States and the European Union to press for the trade measures, which would have monitored international sales of these species to ensure they were sustainable. Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, sent a message to delegates explaining that while he’s banned shark fishing within two hundred nautical miles of his country’s coasts, an area roughly the size of France, “Palau cannot protect our environment alone.” Advocates came armed with plenty of statistics on how fishing has wiped out as much as 99 percent of some of these sharks’ populations, hoping that alone would secure the two-thirds majority they needed for passage.
But a cadre of coastal nations, along with major fish consumers such as Japan and China, beat back the proposals. Grenada’s chief fisheries officer, Justin Rennie, who pushed for a secret ballot on some votes, called the decision to protect hammerheads “arbitrary.” In an interview the day before the final day of voting, Rennie explained that while countries like his are willing to take some responsibility for their use of the ocean, Americans and Europeans can’t expect them to relinquish their economic claim on the sea altogether. For many of them, he explained, their exclusive economic zone in the ocean is fifty times larger than their country’s land area: “We have very little opportunity on the land. That is why we look toward the sea.”
For a short while it looked as if activists had scored at least one victory when delegates adopted the proposal to monitor the trade of porbeagle sharks, which have declined by at least 80 percent in the northeast and southwest Atlantic Ocean. But the convention has a quirky rule: delegates can revote on any proposal on the last day of the conference, and the result of that balloting is the one that carries the day. So just hours before the gathering ended, opponents called for one more vote on the porbeagle protections. The measure failed to get the two-thirds majority it needed by a margin of two votes, as members of the Japanese delegation stood at the back of the room, shaking each other’s hands in congratulations. The delegates to the world’s largest wildlife-trafficking conference, which occurs only every three years, left sharks swimming on the high seas exactly where they’ve always been, with no international catch limits whatsoever.
John Scanlon, the Australian who took over as secretary general of CITES after that meeting in Doha, has a soft spot for sharks. He hopes a report from a joint U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization–CITES workshop held in the wake of the failed votes—which focused on how shark species that might face new trade restricitions are faring and what such curbs would look like—might help broker a future compromise on the issue. “The issue has not gone away, by any stretch,” Scanlon says. “Sharks will definitely come back.”
Scanlon was right. Delegates to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas had resisted the idea of limiting shark fishing for years. But in November 2010 the commission banned the catch, retention, and sale of seven species in the Atlantic Ocean—oceanic whitetips and six types of hammerheads: great, scalloped, scoophead, smalleye, smooth, and whitefin. But member nations balked at protecting the species fueling the bulk of shark fin trade, rejecting catch limits the United States proposed on shortfin makos.
Shark conservation, it turns out, is only partly a matter of finding the exact sales pitch and the right person to deliver it. While activists have finally mastered the science and the message, it takes time to shift the mind-set of both the public and policy makers. The question is how much time the sharks have left.