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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Ghosts of hammerheads

Shadows

Scalloped hammerheads off Kicker Rock, San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands.

With low light, poor visibility and nothing but blue sea beyond, they were little more than ghosts as they slipped by us on a dive site. I’ve reproduced in black and white to maintain image quality.

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Cave sharks

Napping sharks

As soon as we dropped down in some choppy water off Daphne, Galapagos Islands, we found this cave with three resting white tip reef sharks. Absolutely arresting.

The photo is black and white because in addition to shooting blind, I was in low-light, so the colors don’t reproduce so well.

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Tales of shark tails

Not for consumption

A hiding white tip reef shark leaves its tail exposed for all of us to gawk at. Found off Daphne, Galapagos Islands.

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Hammerhead, vol. 5

Headed right for me

This photo should have been better, but alas, when the perfect dive finally came, my camera screen was already flooded. Hence the blind shooting. This is also low light, because I’m down at about 27 meters. Ended up in “deco,” divespeak for too deep, too long.

There’s also a brief moment of panic, when an 8-foot shark (though one with a relatively small mouth) swims straight at you as though you’re not even there.

But there’s no danger with the scalloped hammerhead. In fact, he’s endangered, because humans are pretty much assholes when it comes to treating sharks nicely.

Gordon Rocks, Galapagos Islands.

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Hammerheads, vol. 4

Cruising

Profile of a scalloped hammerhead, Gordon Rocks, Galapagos Islands.

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Hammerheads, vol. 3

Shark from above

This guy came in nice and close. I gave chase, but alas, the scalloped hammerhead is a shark in his element. And I’m just a human pretending to be a fish.

Another fantastic dive at Gordon Rocks, Galapagos Islands.

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Hammerheads, vol. 2

Circling

More scalloped hammerheads from Gordon Rocks, Galapagos Islands. We saw a school of about 15 pass on one dive. Not the greatest photos as I was shooting blind due to a flooded camera screen.

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Hammerheads, vol. 1

Meet the scalloped hammerhead of the famous Gordon Rocks dive site in the Galapagos Islands.

For the record, this photo was shot blind, as my camera’s screen had flooded.

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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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