You may have heard about the importance of sharks in our seas. But this week, we are taking a deeper dive with Julian Engel, Senior Analyst at OceanMind and Co-Initiator of the Stop Finning EU initiative. Through this initiative, with passion, and teamwork, they managed to get 1,000,000 signatures needed in order to speak in front of the European Commission to demand a ban on shark finning trade.

Firstly, why are sharks so important to our seas?

There are ecological reasons why we should be very concerned about the decline of sharks, which in the last 70 years have seen a 90% reduction in numbers. They are an important predator, not only as an apex predator, but they are very crucial to keep environments intact. By preying on either species which are dominating the ecosystem or by simply preferring to prey on injured or sick fish, they keep the ecosystem healthy. There have been numerous studies which show the effects of decreasing sharks in ecosystems. They are immensely important in the food chain. Therefore, they have what we in ecology call a top-down effect on the ecosystem.

What would be the worst-case scenario if we were to lose too many sharks?

The decline of sharks is very connected to fishing pressure on the sharks and what we can see is a phase shift. A typical example of a phase shift in the ocean could be a coral reef which bleaches and the corals die. Eventually, the algae grows, and then you can’t go back to corals because now algae dominates the area. With sharks, if we see that phase shift, we see more fish, or jellyfish dominating the ecosystem and outcompeting everything else. Overall, the biodiversity of the ecosystems decreases.

I like the comparison to a football team, if you have a biodiverse ecosystem, you have basically all the players of a football team, right? You have goalkeeper, you have a striker and so on. And then if you imagine a phase shift and suddenly there are only goalkeepers. The team won’t be very successful and score a lot of goals.

The result is less climate adaptability across many ecosystems. For instance, healthy mangroves or coral reefs have a massive impact on the reduction of tsunami waves, which subsequently impact humans. Sharks have been around the earth for 400 million years. Since then, they have been top predators. Everything else below them has adapted to them in one way or another, either directly or indirectly.

What are some of the reasons that we are targeting these sharks? It sounds like there’s every reason to protect them, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There are two main markets. The meat market, which in the last 20 years is becoming the majority volume wise. I think a lot of readers will never have seen shark meat. Shark meat is probably one of the most mislabelled meat fish products out there. Some studies found protected species like hammerhead sharks in fish and chip sauce in London. Misnaming is a big issue. For instance in Australia, you will find shark being labelled as Flake. In Germany it’s called Schillerlocken after Friedrich Schiller. In the UK you will find it as rock salmon. Because of the low value of shark body meat, mislabelling takes place to help sell the produce.

The second market, and the biggest value by far per tonne is shark fins. These fins are sold to Asia primarily, where it’s considered a status symbol to eat shark fin soup. This highlights why the end product goes to Asia. But Asia isn’t the only offender in the market—the biggest exporter of shark fins in the world is actually the EU. That is why we started the initiative. There is the democratic ability to impact this and to change legislation. And that is what we are aiming for.

Do you have any figures on the number of sharks we might be finning collectively each year?

There’s actually quite an established number now, which is 100 million sharks each year, which is crazy. Sharks play a dominant role on the planet. You would probably see very similar or probably even higher numbers of tuna harvested. But the difference is that a skipjack tuna reaches sexual maturity at about two years old. After four years or so, they have reproduced several times. With sharks, their sexual maturity is closer to 7 years, or even 14 years, depending on the species.

Shark fins drying on roof | Image credit: Paul HIlton via humansociety

So the equivalent on land would be us wiping out 90% of our top predators, right? It would be our lions and tigers. And if we were killing off that sort of volume of our land predators, there would be a lot more alarm bells going off, wouldn’t there?

Yeah, 100%. it’s just treated differently because it’s under the ocean. So therefore, out of sight, out of mind.

To what extent do you think there is illegal trade, or is it mostly transparent and visible?

Part of the problem is that a lot of the trade is legal. That doesn’t mean that all of it is legal. And that is I think the most important part here. For instance, most of the landings in Europe are blue shark. After landing in port, the fins are cut off and placed in a container. If for example 10 protected species of hammerhead shark were also placed into that same container, the whole container would need DNA testing to reliably find the protected species. That’s something you cannot ask from customs, though that is what the current EU legislation asks from the customs to do.

Our initiative talked to the customs in Frankfurt as a major transportation hub. They have retrieved a number of protected sharks, but they can’t test everything and there is definitely significant amounts going undetected. Laundering of illegal catch with legal catch is a huge problem because it undermines any kind of protection.

It is worrying that we’ve all possibly consumed shark then if we’ve eaten fish and chips enough. But there are some serious health concerns associated with eating sharks, aren’t there?

Sharks contain the most toxic version of mercury. They can cope with it because 1/3 of their body is a liver, which is primarily used for buoyancy. But also, they can cope very well with bio accumulation. A spiny dog fish for instance found in a supermarket

labelled rock salmon, has one of the highest methyl mercury contents of any fish species. And that’s really, really dangerous. This is

especially important if you’re pregnant. But also, severe brain damage and other health issues like heart disease and cancer can result from eating shark meat. It’s a very, very serious issue which doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Are there any other sort of similar concerns do you think to like shark finning we should consider?

The one that I will mention will surprise you, I think, which is river runoff. This is important as, if you look at the planetary boundaries we have exceeded, nitrate and the phosphorus are high on the list but get no attention. Raw sewage is pushed into the oceans and into places like the Thames. The first time I swam in the Thames, I actually got seriously sick and I didn’t know why at the time. It’s such an underestimated issue, especially considering the repercussions that it has.

Another aspect dramatically under-studied is the misconception of honeybees. False information and poor farming practices is driving wild bees to extinction. There are so many similar themes that show we have a lot more to learn to protect our planet.

Keep in mind that all these issues go beyond consumerism. There’s this idea that if everybody just changes how they consume things, then we will change the world. But that’s not entirely true. For instance, 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from 100 companies. However, the narrative created by many of those companies about their carbon footprint and activities avoids bringing attention to those responsible for it. So as a consumer, as an individual, you have the power to shift this attention back to the companies responsible and governments which may not be acting in a favourable way for the public. Sharks are in troubled waters, but we can help.

Be Curious

Reading sources and information on the issues around sharks:

  • Shark Guardian is the UK organisation which was spearheading the change in this legislation in the UK.
  • Stop Finning EU is our initiative and links to a lot of what we have spoken about.
  • Read about wider ocean conservation. Sharks are integral to the wider picture.
  • Bite Back has some really good statistics and guidance educating the media on the topic.

Action beyond reading:

  • Sign up to support the EU initiative. This is one of the greatest shots we have to conserve sharks. It shows the European Commission that the world’s watching, both commissioners, who are responsible for this topic and Parliament voting on the legislation.
  • Vote for parties which are in favour of these legislations. 
  • After the elections have happened, demonstrate that this topic is very important.
    • Write to DG Mare, who are the fisheries division responsible and just ask them for an update, telling them you’re very interested in the topic. If the public isn’t showing enough pressure, the industry will win.
  • And lastly, be aware of what you are eating. If you don’t recognise a fish on a menu, ask. Research online what the real fish is behind the marketing name.

Featured image by RuiPAOliveira via pixarbay

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