Sharks fall prey to human jaws

Wednesday, 26 February 2014 | Prerna Singh Bindra | in Oped, The Pioneer shark_finning

Thanks to the 1974 film, Jaws, sharks are still perceived as blood-thirsty man-eaters when in fact they rarely attack people. On the contrary, our insatiable appetite for shark fin has put these creatures on the endangered list

Most of us remember Jaws — the book authored (in 1974) by Peter Benchley and later made into a slick Hollywood blockbuster — about a lone shark that wreaked havoc on a New England beach with bloody attacks on people. Jaws did sharks a major disservice, maligning them as blood0thirsty man-eaters, a taint that continues till date. Few know that the author died regretting the consequences of his book. “It was a work of fiction”, said Benchley, “The shark, in an updated Jaws could not be the villain. It would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed, (rather) than the oppressors.”

He was right, but even decades after Jaws, the shark continues to be targeted for its undeserved evil repute. In fact, in western Australia there has been a recent missive to ‘catch and kill’ large sharks — an ill-informed move to reduce shark attacks. Incidentally, writes Mark Carwardine in BBC Wildlife, there have been fewer than 100 unprovoked attacks of which only 20 were fatal, off the coast of Australia since 1791. This is certainly not a significant number, especially considering the hordes who go into shark habitats in the sea for swimming, surfing, snorkeling, diving, and such other entertainment and sport. Shark attacks are also rare worldwide. Fatalities average about 10 people annually. Consider that figure against the humongous number of humans that enter the water each year and one realises that far more people actually die from drowning while on beach vacations each year, than those killed by sharks in the water.

But the threat to sharks goes much beyond bad press and undeserved infamy. Sharks today are amongst our most threatened species. According to a global analysis carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Shark Specialist Group, over a quarter of the world’s sharks (about 500 species) are threatened with extinction. The study revealed that sharks are substantially more than most other groups of animals. Sharks also have the lowest percentage of species considered ‘safe’, with only 23 per cent categorised as ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List.

The cause for such sharp declines is over-fishing and the demand for shark-fin soup, a delicacy in south-east Asia, particularly China. No less than 100 million sharks are caught every year to cater to the international demand.

The Indian scenario is particularly worrying. India is the second biggest shark-catcher after Indonesia. In fact, both countries accounted for 20 per cent of the global catch between 2002 and 2011, according to a study commissioned by the European Commission, after the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora gave special focus to sharks last March.

In India, sharks used to be abundant off the coast as well as in lagoons, deltas and estuaries. Traditional fishing practices of communities here were seasonal and not exploitative. They fished primarily for their own consumption and for local markets. Sharks were caught for their meat and liver, but it was not a prized catch. The scenario changed in the 1980s. With the increasing appetite, particularly from China, for shark fins, indiscriminate shark fishing began. Also, tapping the vast export market in seafood, India (and other east Asian countries) witnessed an unprecedented spurt in private mechanised trawlers netting every inch of coastal waters for fish. Often, other marine creatures including rare turtles, rays, corals and seahorses also get trapped. Mechanised trawling is indiscriminate. It sweeps the ocean bed clean, taking with it eggs and juveniles, destroying reefs and nurseries, and leaving no scope for renewal. Such trawling has had catastrophic consequences — over-exploitation of marine fauna, dwindling catches and empty oceans.

The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, in a survey in 2010 on 10 groups of commercially important marine animals, found that their populations have declined by about 90 per cent from their historical baselines. Most are almost at a point of no return unless active, urgent measures are taken to revive remaining stocks.

The CMFRI’s figures show that shark catches in India peaked in response to market demand at about 47,207 tonnes in 1998, but then from 2000 onwards, the catches dipped and 26,746 tonnes of shark landings were reported at Indian ports in 2011. Some estimates suggest that over 75,000 tonnes of sharks are harvested annually in India. When sharks are caught, the fins are chopped off and the hapless creatures, still alive, are thrown back into sea to die painful deaths.

In a laudable move in August 2013, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests prohibited the removal of fins from sharks on vessels in the sea. Under the new policy, sharks landed should have their fins naturally attached to them. While this move is a positive initiative, implementing it appears practically impossible given a complete lack of monitoring and enforcement mechanism.

To take this policy forward, we need to understand the shark-fin trade, work with fishing communities and chalk out ways to make it more sustainable while putting in mechanisms for monitoring and regulating catches. One way forward, as a beginning is close seasons for shark fishing, and no-take’ zones-very vulnerable areas, which could be closed for some specified periods of time, allowing for stocks to replenish.

Lack of knowledge and understanding of shark fisheries in India is a major drawback. There is an information gap on catch diversity, volumes and trade of shark products which must be addressed. We also need to track the movement of fins across global trade routes. Areas under shark fishing need to be mapped, options of a ‘closed’ and ‘open’ season explored while caps on volume of capture put in place.

Such an exercise must rope in multiple agencies such as the Marine Products Export Development Authority, research institutions, forest department, police, coast guard, NGOs and fishing communities. Communities should also be sensitised and incentivised to declare their shark catches.

India currently has only a few species of sharks under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. This makes our wildlife laws ineffective, as most shark species lack legal protection. There is a need to reassess the population status of all shark species following their decline over the past two decades and reassign protection schedules under the WPA so that capture of threatened species is restricted and regulated. To implement regulations and ensure adherence of guidelines on over-fishing and shark fishing, multi-agency patrol squads are required to monitor trawlers, search them on suspicion of irregularities as well as inspect catches at landing jetties.

Sharks are the ocean’s large carnivores. They are to the seas what lions are to the savannah and tigers to the forest; the ultimate gauge for ecosystem health. Lakhs of fishing communities in India rely entirely on the ecological health of our seas to earn their livelihood. The effects of over-fishing in our oceans are becoming increasingly apparent on the traditional fishing communities with reduced catches, debts and migration to far off cities in desperate search for work are the consequences increasingly afflicting them. The livelihood of such traditional fisherfolk as well as the future of our threatened marine species need to drive fresh policy dictating the commercial exploitation of our marine fisheries.

(The writer is trustee, ‘Bagh’, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife)

The article invited the following comments from ecologist, Dipani Nitin Sutaria:

 

  • Unsure if enforcement and monitoring has a logical space in the fishing issue, though it does in the ‘finning’ issue. It must be noted here that monitoring  sharking vessels can possibly be done only  by the coast guard.  
  • One practical problem is that ‘IDng’ sharks is difficult even for experts, so how will a fisher know what species he has caught? 
  • There is also the problem of practical implementation of enforcement.  For example, if a shark is incidentally caught in a non-shark vessel, it will need to be identified.  Even if this can be ‘IDed’, and it’s a Schedule I , would they keep the shark, or throw it back, dead or alive?  If dead, it’s  big loss to monitor mortality. If alive and released (idealistic) how well will this be documented?

 

This article was first published in The Pioneer.