By Nicole Bozkurt, Graphic Designer and Writer
After decades of practicing the shark fin trade, with nearly 100 million sharks caught and killed each year, our planet is at risk for losing one of the greatest apex predators of the ocean. At the current rate of shark fishing, over 90% of the populations of numerous shark species has been demolished and will be forced into extinction relatively soon if a change is not made (McCauley, McLean, Baur, Young, Micheli, 2012). Since many people have never interacted with sharks in person, most only think of sharks as ruthless killers of the ocean. They are blind to the fact that most of our marine ecosystems rely on sharks to maintain them. If the idea of a collapsing marine ecosystem does not persuade the public to help prevent the cause, then the fact that sharks actually bring in nearly 30% more money alive through ecotourism than dead globally each year (Cisneros-Montemayor, Barnes-Mauthe, Al-Abdulrazzak, Navarro-Holm, Sumaila, 2013). While some may think it is an easy solution to prevent the extinction of sharks by enacting policies against shark finning, it is not that simple. Since the issue is on a global level, policies must individually be placed by countries, many of which are underdeveloped and will not give up the economic benefits created by the shark fin trade.
The public also is internationally divided among those who fear sharks and those who want to save sharks. This is most likely a result of the media’s stereotyping of sharks. With various factors complicating the implication of shark fishing policy, the problem must be looked at from multiple angles. If policy makers are unable to agree on a global scale to outlaw shark fishing altogether, then scientists must also prepare for a changing marine ecosystem, designing effective management plans in areas of shark depletion so that other marine organisms do not overpopulate (McCauley et al., 2012).
How People’s Perception of Sharks is Preventing Change
Popularized articles dated back from the mid 1900’s to today have been proven to include alarming imagery of sharks and their interactions with humans as well as graphic images created by computer software. News reports, especially in present day, have also been shown to induce fear of sharks in the audience by making it seem as if sharks are a life threatening danger any time a human enters the ocean (McCagh, Sneddon, Blache, 2015). It is not that media has purposefully tried to promote fear of sharks, but as explained by (McCagh et., al, 2015) “…framing devices such as metaphors, exemplars, catchphrases, depictions and visual images can be used to subtly, or not so subtly, illicit fearful responses”. When people are introduced with an idea that is subtly laced with fear through rhetorical techniques, they are subconsciously going to respond with fear. McCagh and his team even underwent a study to see if people would react to shark attack news reports in the way that the media subconsciously taught them to. Not to their surprise, when reviewing interviews with people about the attack, some used nearly exact quotes from the famous movie “Jaws” to describe the shark attack. Without even noticing, people explained their feelings towards sharks that they had learned through a movie. (McCagh et., al, 2015). It is now the job of the media to remove the stigma they have implanted on the public by showing people the importance of real, live sharks, not those personified through the media.
The Current Legal Issues Regarding the Shark Fin Trade
One of the greatest problems facing policy makers is the fragmentation of power among various organizations that all control different aspects of shark populations. Some control fishing, some control only endangered species, some have power to control state policy and others control federal policy. The issue is, that one policy cannot be in place to end the trade globally (Techera, Klein, 2011). Currently, the United States of America has the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in place, which made it illegal to possess a shark fin in the U.S. and U.S. waters without the corresponding shark carcass. Although this law has caused a slight decrease in shark finning, since it is inconvenient and impossible for some fishermen to fully capture and return with a shark carcass, it is not enough to prevent the population from continuing to decline. International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks), a treaty implemented in 1999, currently holds the greatest opportunity for creating federal policy against shark fishing globally. Although IPOA-Sharks does not specifically have the power to create binding rights and obligations on states, it still provides a procedure specific to each national power on how to prevent shark extinction (Techera, Klein, 2011). The difficulty still lies in the economic needs of underdeveloped countries around the world that are not willing to give up the economic benefits of the shark fin trade.
The Uses for Shark Products
Much of the blame for shark finning is often put on China, because that is where shark fin soup originated and continues to be consumed at the highest rates. Much of the public does account for shark byproducts that are incorporated into many beauty and health products. It has been believed for years, especially in Chinese culture, that shark cartilage and liver oil have cosmetic and therapeutic values; yet, these claims have not been supported by scientific research (Lumpur, 2016). Instead of continuing to research the effects of shark consumption on human health, shark products have been advertised to promote health and beauty worldwide. Without scientific research backing the process, an entire market for shark cartilage as an alternative therapy for cancer treatment and prevention has been created. People have allowed for advertisement companies to persuade them about the benefits of shark products, when none of the information has been proven scientifically factual (Vannuccini, 1999). Because sharks are endangered and therefore have such a high economic value, they are marketed to make people believe their consumption is beneficial to human health.
Enforcement of New Laws and Policies
Implementing a global policy to outlaw shark fishing seems like an obvious solution to prevent the extinction of shark species, but as explained before, power over marine animals in the ocean is fragmented into various people’s hands. As of 2019, the United States introduced the US Shark Sales Elimination Act that will outlaw US trade of threatened or endangered sharks finned illegally or in countries without laws against shark fishing. Although this act has not yet been put in place, with enough public support, this could be the first massive step towards saving the endangered species. If the United States, who claims to have the most sustainable shark fisheries, outlaws the act of shark fishing it could push other countries to do the same. The United States may take a minor economic loss because these fisheries will be forced to close, as in any other country, but replacing these fisheries with shark ecotourism will not only prevent a major loss of jobs, but it will also provide a greater income of money for developing countries that take part in the shark fin trade.
Using Ecotourism to Replace the Shark Fin Trade
While the shark fin trade, an average, globally produces about $540 million to $1.2 billion each year, ecotourism in developing countries alone is projected to be able to produce $210 trillion annually if efforts are focused to promote it. Not only will ecotourism bring in more money for developing countries than the shark fin trade, but it will also include “job-creation benefits, such as the building, maintenance and operation of hotels, the supply of goods and services to these, and the generation of government tax revenues (Kirkby et al., 2010).
Ecotourism not only generates money and jobs for people, but it also allows for the public to disregard the stereotypes the media has taught us about animals and create their own ideas about animals, including sharks. A single experience with an animal can change a person’s perception on it forever, which ecotourism will allow for. Not only does this apply to sharks, but also many other endangered animals suffering from poaching and hunting.
Preparation for an Ocean without Sharks
As detrimental as it is, it is very possible that it is too late to save sharks from extinction in various oceans among our planet. If this is the case, scientists must be prepared to put plans in place to prevent entire oceanic ecosystems from collapsing. The first step in this preparation is having proper measurement tools in place to monitor specific shark species’ populations and the rate at which they are decreasing (McCauley et al., 2012). Once these numbers are collected, each species will have to be analyzed within its ecosystem to help predict which organisms will be affected first after the absence of the sharks. If scientists can predict the initial changes that will result in the marine ecosystem, then they can mimic the role of the sharks in that specific ecosystem so it is not entirely disrupted. For example, a study in North Carolina showed that the decreasing numbers of white sharks has led to an increase in the ray population and therefore a decrease in the scallop population. Because sharks are apex predators, their loss causes population sizes of nearly every organism in the ecosystem to change. If the white shark ecosystem had been observed, people could have killed off some of the rays, as the sharks once had, preventing the massive decline in the scallop population that was observed. This will not only keep populations at stable sizes, but it will prevent fisheries from closing down, like many scallop fisheries in North Carolina were forced to (Zabarenko, 2007).
Many of the resources that humans fish for in the ocean will be lost along with sharks. Francesco Ferretti and his coauthors of “Global Consequences of Shark Declines” decided to investigate numerous articles to analyze how decreasing shark populations will affect the oceans globally. In general, as industrial fishing increases, apex predators, such as sharks are killed off, allowing for meso predators to flourish, but causing resource species, including various fish species’ populations to decline. While these resource species are used by marine meso predators, they are also used by humans (Ferretti et al., 2010). A global decline of these species across the world’s oceans will result in a huge economic loss for fisheries and will likely lead to the loss of many jobs.
There are various angles at which the declining shark population problem must be attacked in order to prevent the extinction of sharks. These animals are important predators in our oceans and without them, many marine ecosystems, and therefore fisheries, will collapse. The public must be educated on the fact that sharks are more economically beneficial when alive in our oceans than dead. Ecotourism alone can generate exponentially more money than the shark fin trade without harming marine ecosystems. Ecotourism also allows people to see animals as they really are in the wild, not how they are stereotyped in the media. If more people accept sharks then there is a greater power pushing for implementation of shark policy that can hopefully put an end to the declining population of sharks. If all of these aspects are monitored in the following years, there is a chance for some populations to bounce back from the destruction humans have caused upon their species. A plan must also be put in place in case a shark species goes extinct in order to protect the other marine organisms that inhabit the ecosystem.
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