Rob Stewart is a young Canadian marine filmmaker and director of the acclaimed film Sharkwater. Stewart contends that far from being the lethal man-eaters portrayed in recent media reports in Australia, sharks are in fact themselves in deep trouble because of shark-eating men.
Stewart says people kill 100 million sharks each year, largely for their fins, the key ingredient in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. "Shark populations have declined by 90 percent in the last 30 years," says Stewart.
Shark finning, where the fins are cut off a shark, often when it is still alive, and the rest of the animal dumped back in the sea, is banned in Australia. This does not prevent fishermen from catching sharks and exporting their fins as long as the whole shark is brought ashore. Nor does it stop Australia from importing fins from countries where finning is still allowed.
Australian sharks in danger
The International Union for Conservation of Nature is a scientific organisation that assesses the status of species worldwide. Its 'Red List' shows that several types of shark routinely caught in Australia are at high risk of extinction.
In Australia, shark fishing has exploded, with catches in NSW five times greater last year than the previous year. The NSW Department of Primary Industries reported in their 2006 Ocean Trap and Line Fishery Environmental Impact Statement: "Specific and immediate action should be implemented to reduce the high risk to these species."
Australia's most iconic shark, the great white, is also in danger. The Marine Futures project a research partnership led by the University of Western Australia (UWA) and including a range of council, state and federal natural resource management agencies recently highlighted the endangered status of the great white and other sharks.
"The Marine Futures project collected over 1800 hours of video from eight locations using baited video cameras and counted over 41,000 fish from 265 species," UWA's Dr Tim Langlois says. "Yet we were shocked to see only one great white for five seconds, and very few other commercially-targeted sharks."
Turtles, dolphins, whales and seabirds
It's not just sharks that are under threat. Industrial longline fishing uses fishing lines, some hundreds of miles long, strung with baited hooks, which catch anything that bites or gets hooked while swimming in their path. Sea turtles, seabirds, dolphins, whales, sea lions and marlins get caught on the hooks and drown, to be discarded by the fishermen when the line is brought in.
What is being done about this?
In short, it's up to consumers to say no to dishes like shark fin soup, and avoid buying fish, either in Australia or abroad, that's under threat from overfishing.
Giselle Firme, head of the Nature Conservation Council's Sustainable Seafoodies campaign, says: "We aim to educate the public about which fish are in trouble in their favourite dishes, and what the most sustainable options are." By making careful choices, she says, "the public has the power to drive the market and make a difference for the environment".
What can you do?
- Say no to shark fin soup, at home or abroad. Shark fin only gives texture, not taste, to the soup. Plus, at $180 a bowl, the decision shouldn't be that hard. If you're served shark fin soup as part of a banquet or special meal, explain to your host why you're saying no and help spread the message that the practice is cruel and wasteful.
- Get informed about which fish are sustainable and which aren't. You can find a handy list of what fish to buy on the ninemsn health website .
- Always find out what type of fish you are eating. Can you imagine ordering 'meat' and chips, not knowing if you'll get beef, pork, lamb or chicken?
- Avoid buying anything that comes from an endangered animal turtle, seal, whale or shark products are obvious examples. You won't be able to bring them back to Australia anyway.
- Check that any tour or wildlife watching trip you join has the environment's best interests at heart. In Australia, look for the 'eco-tick' symbol from Ecotourism Australia. As there is no worldwide accreditation scheme yet, their guidelines can be useful when choosing trips abroad as well.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions when travelling and post your experiences, good or bad, on travel blogs. These are good ways to change harmful practices but encourage sustainable operators.
- Participate in diving and snorkelling activities at home and abroad. Send the message that sharks are worth more alive than dead!
Would you eat shark fin soup? Have you seen Sharkwater? What do you think about killing sharks? Have your say using the comment form below: