Is shark finning the answer to shark finning?

Cruising behind him

Global shark catch is staggering. As many as 73 million sharks are taken from the ocean each year; most are relieved of their fins and dumped back in the water while still alive. These beautiful and important predators now face serious threats from our wanton harvesting, mostly to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup.

First and foremost this is tragic simply in terms of human decimation of biodiversity. Excepting that ecological concern, there are real reasons to worry from an entirely anthropocentric standpoint. For one, sharks provide ecotourism benefits to many coastal economies, as divers pay substantially to see them. Also, as apex predators, a decline in shark populations can lead to explosions of other species on lower trophic levels, which can threaten ecosystems of commercial importance For example, fewer sharks lead to more rays which lead to less scallops for us to sell for dipping in butter.

Is there an answer? Shark sanctuaries are fantastic; they represent the ideal of conservation. However, given problems with enforcement and the potential for bans to simply displace degradation rather than curtail it, national prohibitions don’t seem realistic as a complete solution.

I argue, rather, that we need to recognize — at least in the interim — the reality that shark finning will likely continue. We would do well then to incentivize conservation and better management so that fishermen and fleets develop an interest in preserving rather than over-harvesting. In this class paper, I lay out the economic reasoning for a nation-by-nation transferable shark fishing quota system.

This would push harvests toward social and biological optimums; in conjunction with marine protected areas and fishing best practice standards, a quota system might actually slow the destruction of shark populations worldwide.

It’s not a particularly palatable option for shark lovers (myself included). Under a quota system, some number of sharks like the one above will still be killed for an overpriced, elitist broth. But it also might do better to ensure that a sustainable population of sharks sticks around.

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These guys froze me in my fins

Schooling overhead

During a channel dive at Kicker Rock, near San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, a school of young Galapagos sharks cruised overhead, literally stopping me in my fins. In all, more than 40 sharks just planed by about 10 meters overhead. One of the best dives I’ve ever done.

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Sharks are friends, not food

Beautiful

A beautiful Galapagos shark cruises near Kicker Rock, close to San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands. I sound like a broken record but: Most if not all sharks are under threat from over fishing. I know I’ve eaten shark previously — even claimed it to be my favorite meat — but I will never again (even if I stop being vegetarian).

Sharks are too often apex predators or even keystone species. And they’re also natural art, highly adapted and evolved. They’re one of the oldest living predators on the planet.

Even catch-and-release sport fishing can be severely harmful to the great animals, particularly when pulled from depths. They can suffer barotrauma from pressure changes and thermo-regulation problems from being removed from cold water. One scientist I met in the Galapagos specifically stressed that often catch-and-release fishing of large, deep-water species leads to high mortality rates.

Please, don’t fish or eat them and don’t encourage others.

Lone shark

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Prowling for a meal

On the hunt

A Galapagos shark out for a meal. The water quality and visibility was less than stellar, hence the grain when this photo was leveled in production. These guys are no real threat to humans, but at close to two meters long, they still have a commanding presence from 15 feet away.

Off the coast of North Seymour, in the Galapagos.

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