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Why We Should Help Save All Sharks

Why We Should Help Save All Sharks

Phuket and its surrounding areas are fortunate to have some wonderful sharks to go diving with. Black Tip Reef sharks and Leopard (above) sharks are possibly the two most common.

The Phi Phi islands often provide great sightings of Black tips with Palong Wall on Phi Phi Ley being one of the best. On a good day it is possible to see up to 20 or 30 sharks, which makes for an amazing dive. One of the best features of the black tips is that they are commonly located in shallow water and can be easily seen by even the most novice of divers and can often be seen by snorkelers as well.

Leopard sharks are one of the most popular sharks in the area and are often found resting on the sea bed at around 20 metres. A favorite for divers as they tend to be quite lazy and are very tolerant of divers which makes them a great shark for photography enthusiasts and regular divers alike. If approached correctly divers can come within a few metres of a shark without the shark swimming away. The best place for Leopard sharks recently has been Phi Phi particularly Koh Bida Nok and Koh Bida Nai. Shark Point was named after the Leopard Sharks that frequented there however the numbers have been declining there in recent years. Anemone Reef has been known to have regular appearances and they can also commonly be found in the Similan Islands. Recently Leopard Sharks have been seen at both Koh Racha Noi and Koh Racha Yai.

The small grey Bamboo sharks can be located in many dive sites through out the area with large numbers of them residing at Koh Doc Mai where they can be found hiding under rocks and in crevices in deeper waters, around 20 metres or so. They take a bit of finding, as they are pretty clever at hiding. They are commonly found alone but at times they can be in groups of five or six.

White tip reef sharks are not to common throughout the region however they have been known to frequent the Similan Island and particularly Koh Bon.

The Holy Grail of sharks the Whale Shark do make appearances throughout the area. They do not frequent with any regularity although there tends to be a few more sightings throughout the day trip sites between the months of July and September. In the north Richelieu Rock tends to get a lot of sightings as does Hin Daeng and Hin Muang in the south.

Unfortunately as with the rest of the world Phuket’s and Thailand’s shark numbers have been reducing over the years. The exact reason in not fully known in Phuket but the assumption would be because of over fishing. The following extracts have been taken from the Project Aware Shark Conservation Distinctive Specialty Course. The course can be completed in a day and gives you a real insight to the plight of the sharks.

The first sharks appeared in the world’s oceans over 400 million years ago, more than 150 million years before the first dinosaurs took to the land. Most of the modern sharks we see today first appeared around 100 million years ago. By comparison the first humans evolved only around 200,000 years ago.

Sharks have evolved into roughly 500 species and come in many sizes from the dwarf lantern shark at around 7 cm to the whale shark – the world’s largest fish – that grows up to 12 metres.

The Red List Review of 1044 sharks, rays and chimaeras found that 30% are threatened or near threatened with extinction.
Most shark species are characterised by one or more life history traits that make them vulnerable to overfishing, including:

· It takes them a long time to reach sexual maturity.
· They have a long gestation period (one or two years).
· They have a small number of offspring (pups) and
· They breed only every second or third year.

Compared to other vertebrates (animals with a backbone including mammals), sharks generally have a slow reproductive cycle. The reproductive strategy of most shark species more closely resembles those of whales, elephants and birds than other fish.

Under natural conditions this slow reproductive strategy works well for sharks as they have few predators and so have no need to rapidly replenish their numbers.

These traits work against sharks when they need to recover from overfishing or other substantial losses. A slow reproductive strategy means they are unable to respond quickly to the removal of many individuals from a population.

For example, the dusky shark can take more than 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Most shark species give birth to between 2 and 20 pups after a pregnancy of 8-12 months, though spiny dogfish are thought to gestate for nearly two years. Females of many shark species rest between breeding cycles for at least one year.

The shark’s reproductive strategy is very different to most bony ocean fish that release millions of eggs in a lifetime. As we shall see later in the course, this key difference contributes greatly to the many problems associated with shark fisheries management.

Another trait that makes some shark species vulnerable to heavy fishing is their tendency to form groups based on their age, sex and/or maturity. Large, older females of many shark species produce greater numbers of stronger pups than younger females, so the sudden removal of these older females through fishing can have serious consequences for the population.

Sharks play a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems by keeping a balance among prey species and by removing sick, injured and diseased animals.

Overfishing is the main cause of the rapid decline in shark populations. It is mostly due to overfishing that many shark species are threatened with extinction.

A study that analysed shark fin trade records estimated that the weight of sharks killed annually to support the global shark fin trade is between 1.21 and 2.29 million tonnes with a median of 1.70 million tonnes. This is equivalent to between 26 and 73 million sharks killed every year with a best estimate of 38 million individual sharks.

Shark fin soup is a status symbol in Chinese culture as historically it was a dish reserved for the Emperor. Today serving shark fin soup to your guests demonstrates that you think highly of them, and that you have great personal wealth.

But the demand for shark fin soup is fast outpacing supply. Rapidly growing populations and rising incomes means many more people can now afford shark fin soup. Demand for shark fins is driving the global depletion of shark populations as fishers from all countries learn of the opportunities for profit.

Shark fins are among the world’s most valuable fisheries products. Processed shark fins can cost hundreds of dollars per kilogram compared with US$1 to US$10 per kilogram for shark meat depending on species. A bowl of soup can sell for as much as US$100.

Shark fins add texture to soup rather than flavour. Many chefs use chicken soup as a base for their shark fin soup.

Shark finning is the practice of removing a shark’s fins at sea and discarding the body overboard. Sharks are frequently finned while still alive.

Why do fishers go to the trouble of catching a shark only to throw most of it away? The answer lies in the high value of shark fins. Shark fins are among the world’s most valuable fisheries products while shark meat is generally much less valuable. So the temptation is strong for fishers to throw the bulky shark carcasses overboard leaving room in the ship’s holds for more shark fins or more valuable species such as tuna and swordfish.

Shark finning has been banned by many countries, though international trade in shark fins is allowed for most species. Because finning happens out at sea where monitoring is generally poor and fishing regulations are lacking or weak, the practice of finning continues.

Sharks provide economic benefits to countries and to local communities as a source of food and as tourist attractions.

Sharks provide an income or protein for many people and will continue to do so if fished at a sustainable level. The problem is not that we are fishing for sharks; the problem is that in most cases we are overfishing sharks.

Some populations of sharks are valuable as a tourist attraction. Sharks repeatedly rank number one in surveys of the marine animal that dive tourists most want to see. Studies have shown that live sharks close to tourism centres can have a far greater economic value to a country over a longer period of time than the one-time value of selling their fins and meat.

In Palau sharks are estimated to bring $18 million per year into the economy through dive tourism. One reef shark over its lifetime will earn the country an estimated US$1.9 million compared to a one-off income of US$108 when fished.

In the Maldives each live grey reef shark is worth an estimated US$3,300 per year through dive tourism and as much as US$33,500 at the most popular sites. The same shark has a one-off value of US$32 when fished.

In the Bahamas sharks have brought an estimated US$800 million into the economy through tourism over a twenty year period. A single reef shark is estimated to be worth US$250,000 over its lifetime. If fished the same shark would earn only US$50-60.

Global whale shark tourism was valued at US$47.5 million in 2004. In The Canary Islands shark and ray tourism supports an estimated 429 jobs and earns the region an estimated €17.7 million annually. In South Africa diving with great white sharks brought in US$4.1 million in 2003 and diving with tiger sharks earned US$1.8 million in 2007.

Dive tourism can improve people’s appreciation of sharks and turn them into advocates for shark conservation. This can lead to improved protection for shark species not usually associated with diving, such as those in international waters.

Sharks have an undeserved reputation of being mindless killers. They are often portrayed as man-eaters that show no mercy and should be given no mercy. Media outlets often feed the public’s fears by sensationalising shark attack stories.

Humans have long feared being attacked by sharks but it was the 1975 film Jaws that first portrayed sharks as vengeful hunters of humans. Jaws triggered an unprecedented retaliation on sharks as people around the world took it upon themselves to make the seas safer by killing sharks.

One of the barriers to gaining greater protection for sharks is overcoming public perceptions that sharks do not deserve to be protected. Since the release of Jaws many conservationists, including the story’s author Peter Benchley, have worked hard to restore the shark’s reputation.

A clear understanding of the likelihood of being attacked by a shark is a first step to overcoming our misperceptions. The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) is a compilation of all known shark attacks. In 2010 ISAF reported 79 unprovoked shark attacks on humans, only six of them were fatal.

ISAF states that shark attacks have levelled off over the last 30 years to an average of 63.5 per year, but notes that the rapidly growing human population could be masking a drop in shark attacks. Each year there are more people in the water and so there should be more shark attacks. ISAF states that falling shark populations could partly explain why shark attacks have not become more frequent with the growing human population.

Poor knowledge of the great variety of shark species is another barrier to protecting them. Of roughly 500 species only about ten are implicated in unprovoked attacks on humans. Bull, tiger, and white sharks are responsible for most attacks. The majority of shark species have never bitten a human.

Sharks are often thought of as man-eaters. In fact it is rare for a shark to attack a person and even rarer for a shark to eat a live human. Most shark attacks on humans are thought to be mistakes or explorations. These attacks consist of an exploratory bite during which the shark discovers we are not their normal food. In most cases the shark then leaves the victim unmolested. The unfortunate reality is that one exploratory bite from a large shark can be fatal. Still, it is clear that under normal circumstances sharks do not seek humans to eat.

Another way of clearing our perceptions is to understand that when we swim in the ocean we are entering the shark’s home. Few would be surprised or outraged if someone walking across the Serengeti in Africa was attacked by lions. Yet, when a swimmer is attacked by a shark it often provokes a great backlash. But the ocean is the shark’s home just as much as the Serengeti is the lion’s home. We need to understand that when we are in the water we are in the shark’s environment, not ours. We are free to take the risk if we choose, but we shouldn’t blame the shark if an incident occurs.

What can we do to help?

· Get involved – Support Project Aware – www.projectaware.org/project/sharks-peril
· Join campaigns
· Support Marine Protected Areas
· Tell others
· Choose not to eat shark fin soup
· Avoid purchasing items that contain shark products
. Sign the petition

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