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May 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sharks Under Siege: Part II

and what divers can do to help them out

from the May, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Whenever anyone falls overboard or is adrift at sea, it's always in "shark-infested waters," the implication being that thousands are lurking below, just waiting to rip a human apart. So it's not easy to convince many non-divers that a healthy shark population is critical to a healthy ocean. According to George Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually just so their fins can be the base of the Asian delicacy, shark fin soup. The shark population has declined by as much as 90 percent as a result. It's not just in environmentally-unprotected Asia where sharks are being killed. DNA from fins purchased in San Francisco indicates that the fins come from sharks all over the world, over half from sharks classified as "vulnerable" species.

The Need for Marine Preserves

On Mexico's Caribbean side, a bull shark population was recently identified near Playa del Carmen, and dive operators started shark dives in the area. But on November 6, a commercial fisherman from Puerto Moreles went to the Porto Real Hotel pier, where bull sharks often congregate, and caught nine of them using longline. When the dive shops found out, they raised hell.

Jorge Correa, director of Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen, told us, "We contacted the press and coordinated several town hall meetings between the local dive community and local fishing cooperatives, bringing in several experts, including the director of marine parks. We were able to convince the fisherman responsible not to fish there again. We were also able to get nine of the 12 local commercial fishermen with permits to stop fishing for sharks in Playa del Carmen." There's still the fear that the incident will be repeated and threaten a flourishing population of female sharks. The fisherman had a permit, but used an illegal long line. "That entire policy needs to be fixed," says Correa. So he and other local dive operators created an organization called Saving Our Sharks to seek marine protection for Playa del Carmen and its bull sharks. "We can prove that sharks have more economic and natural value for the area alive," the group says in a petition for official protection. Sign the petition at: More details about the nonprofit can be found at On the Pacific coast, Wildcoast is supporting the efforts of Isla Guadalupe Biosphere Reserve to protect white sharks. Get details at

Nonprofits Against Finning and For Shark Protection

* Iemanya Oceanica -
* Oceanic Defense -
* Predators in Peril project -
* Shark Alliance -
* Shark Angels -
* The Shark-Free Marina Initiative -
* Shark Safe Network -
* Shark Savers -
* WildAid -

While shark finning is illegal in Mexico, that's not stopping poor fishermen. They can get an average of $250 per kilo of shark fins from Singaporean, Japanese and other Asian fleets. And with the shark populations declining in their local waters, they're crossing into U.S. waters to hunt them illegally. The Coast Guard is catching Mexican shark fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico, which annually catch more than 50,000 sharks. Carlos Guerra, a Mexican fisherman, told the Washington Post in March, "When we fish here, we catch next to nothing. Little fish and barely any of them. When we cross the border, we catch so much and make a lot of money." The sharks they haul in are dubbed "gringos."

Another area also eyed by shark-finning fishermen is Cocos Island, a diver's favorite. In our March 2009 article, "The Shark Hunt Continues at Cocos Island," David Leonard wrote about the abundance of illegal finning at Cocos, and rangers' lack of financial assistance to stop them. The good news is that on March 3, Costa Rica created a new marine-protection area called the Seamounts Marine Management Area, which extends 2.5 million acres around Cocos Island, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park. The new park will have both no- and low-fishing areas, with official protection for the scalloped hammerhead and the leatherback turtle.

The bad news is that Costa Rica overall has not banned shark finning, so it goes on without abatement. Even famous chef Gordon Ramsey, visiting the ports of Puntarenas for his documentary on shark finning, was not safe from shark-fin smugglers. A crew from Taiwan poured gas over him one day, then held him up at gunpoint the next when he tried to film thousands of shark fins on their boats. Police ordered Ramsey out of the country.

Will the World Act Against Shark Finning?

Despite the harrowing news of 70 million sharks being killed annually, there is good news - - more countries are taking action against their slaughter. Last year, Palau and the Maldives created vast marine reserves for sharks surrounding their territories. Honduras followed, prohibiting all commercial fishing of sharks.

Beqa Adventure Divers, which offers shark dives in Fiji, has publicly called for a stop to shark finning in the island nation. Mike Neuman, director of Beqa Adventures Divers, told the Fijian press that sharks play important roles in Fiji's economy. "As to the value of sharks for dive tourism, we have calculated that a single shark on our shark dive contributes USD$16,600 to the local economy annually, or $330,000 during its lifetime." Compare that to a 2009 report by New Zealand agency Pacific Scoop stating that shark fins in Fiji can only fetch $50. "If we destroy our oceans, we risk losing countless jobs and 55 percent of our GDP," Neuman said. "This is simply not a risk the country can afford. "

The United States is starting to take action. Hawaii was the first U.S. state to ban the sale, possession and distribution of shark products. It was followed by the Mariana Islands, and Guam, where the governor signed the bill last month. Guam, a long-time fishing port had seen a severe decline in its shark population as the demand for shark fin soup rose but after the U.S. passed the first iteration of its law to ban shark finning, Guam noticed that its shark population began to recover. Oregon and Washington bills banning the illegal trade of shark fins are making their way through their respective legislatures. In February, two California state senators proposed a bill to halt all the state's trade in shark fins. Paul Fong, one of the senators proposing the bill said in a news conference, "I grew up on shark fin soup, but when I found out the effect it is having on the shark population, I stopped eating it." Surprisingly, the law is getting considerable opposition, mainly from Chinese-American restaurant and market owners, seafood distributors and fishermen. Leland Yee, a state senator from the Bay Area, is their defender. He spoke out against the bill at a press conference, serving samples of shark fin soup to reporters. "Right now, Costco sells shark steak," Yee told the San Francisco Chronicle. "What are you going to do with the fin from that shark? This is another example in a long line of examples of insensitivity to the culture and traditions of the Asian American community."

We prefer the logic of Charles Phan, chef at the Slanted Door, a leading Asian restaurant in San Francisco. He told the Chronicle: "It's never easy when you try to tell people what not to eat, but, in my view, the ocean needs protection. You might call it part of Chinese culture, but if you keep it up, shark will disappear. We need to do what's right for Mother Earth."

To throw your support behind the California bill, sign these two petitions: and To set Senator Leland Yee straight, contact him via his website at

- - Vanessa Richardson

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