Divers and Sharks; a mutual symbioses.
Divers are like sharks. We both breathe underwater, have stereo vision and depth perception, and we both use fins to propel ourselves effortlessly through the water. Have you ever tried diving without fins? Ridiculous. Unfortunately 100 million sharks lose their fins each year, but unlike us, they can’t survive without their fins. So to support international anti shark-finning campaigns, divers in Koh Tao, Thailand, are preparing to ditch their fins in order to swim 3 km around an island, fin-less.
Sharks, like many of the larger predators, have been given an exaggerated negative media impression which has led to a common fear that they are a threat to humans. Media latches onto any and every shark attack and the news goes worldwide. In fact, you are more likely to be killed by a vending machine. And when was the last time you read about a savage killer vending machine. Additionally, the human perception for protecting ‘cute and cuddly’ over ‘wet and slimy’ means shark conservation is often neglected and arduous. Sharks are apex predators and without them there would be aquatic chaos; the fine balance of our marine ecosystems relies upon these behemoths of the deep to keep order. And as an observational sport, seeing a beautiful, healthy reef is fundamental to the activity and business of diving.
More than 100 million sharks are killed each year, either inadvertently as by-catch during trawl net fishing, through habitat destruction, sport fishing, or by the more barbaric practice of ‘shark finning’. Many asian cultures consider the consumption of a sharks fin to possess spurious health benefits. This has lead to a multi-million dollar industry for shark fin soup, with 10,000 tonnes of shark fin landed annually. With an immense economic incentive for shark finning (a large whaleshark pectoral fin can sell for US$15,000), it’s no wonder conservation agencies are having a hard time controlling the international trade of sharks. And as shark populations become more depleted, so their value increases.
Within the last few decades human impact has destroyed 90% of the global shark population. And that’s only the ones we have effectively monitored – shark research, like their conservation, is extremely limited and complex. It is impossible to know what we are inadvertently doing to the ocean abyss when we haven’t even been able to explore it yet. And existing data is limited and consequential, taken from the few scientists trained in marine research or from corrupt fisheries data.
Many politicians have fought for protection of sharks, but insincere data and the buying of many countries votes by countries benefiting for the killing of sharks makes international trade control weak, if at all. Without appropriate advice from those that can access the aquatic realm as best as any human, the divers, there is little support for their protection over economic gain.
As divers we are the ambassadors to the underwater world. We have the skills in place and the appreciation of the aquatic realm to be the best advocates for shark protection. The scale of the problem can often lead to the mindset that we can’t make a dent. But the truth is every small effort to help sharks will contribute; we can measure our success in the awareness we generate, the minds we change, and the sharks we save. There are lots of ways to help get involved in shark conservation; enrol on marine identification and conservation specialty diving courses; educate fellow divers on the problems facing sharks; participate in ongoing conservation action in your local dive school; and organise fundraisers and awareness evenings. Sign a petition supporting a tighter control on the international protection of sharks; it does a global species little good to be protected in the waters of one country, only to be freely butchered when they wander into the waters of another.
As a member of the Shark Alliance, Big Blue Conservation (Koh Tao) have organised a Swim for Sharks, which last year raised 17,000 baht for shark conservation activities supporting tighter control for the international trade of sharks. This year divers all over Koh Tao will be participating in the annual Swim4Sharks, swimming the 3 km around Koh Nang Yuan Island in the Gulf of Thailand and raising the awareness of the whole island with night time entertainment, including a mass Mohawk shaving – very shark fin-esque. Please give some time (and your hair) to shark conservation, come along and see how a small diving community can have a big impact for shark conservation.
As divers, that first sighting of a whaleshark is euphoric; watching the 10 tonne plankton feeder glide gracefully around the reef; pause and play in your regulator bubbles; approach you with inconceivable curiosity; there’s nothing like it. We know sharks are not out to hunt humans – we are in their realm and we should give them the respect they truly deserve from 400 million years of existence. We are guests of the oceans not customers. And I don’t know about you, but I quite like seeing sharks in their domain going about their daily activities. I’d quite like to keep on seeing them.