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Tuna and Sharks

We are all connected. Particularly Sharks and Tuna.

Photo: Rob StewartPhoto: Rob StewartSharks, and our oceans, in a state of crisis

The fate sharks face is part of a far bigger problem. Our oceans are in a state of global crisis as more and more people compete for less and less fish. And overfishing is threatening more than just the coastal communities who rely upon them – it is threatening every one of us. Make no mistake – if the oceans collapse, the catastrophic effects will touch all of us.

Yet, each of us also has the power to change this. The solution is as easy as what we decide to buy and eat. These simple decisions determine not only our future, but also the oceans' future, the fate of sharks, and the legacy we leave behind for generations to come. Stop eating shark and you end the demand. Stop eating other fish species as well, and you are contributing even more to the health of shark populations.

The end of the line

High tech, industrial fishing fleets and years of overfishing have done their damage; the oceans are in demise. Indeed, many scientists believe commercial fisheries will collapse worldwide by 2048, although regionally, thousands of fisheries have already collapsed. For instance, the Pacific salmon made its annual pilgrimage this year in the mere thousands – versus the millions that ran upstream a few decades ago.

Thousands of sharks killed for their fins by tuna fishermen, who no longer are catching tuna. Photo: Julie AndersenThousands of sharks killed for their fins by tuna fishermen, who no longer are catching tuna. Photo: Julie AndersenFish cannot compete with our excessive demands – and fishermen (often times with governmental support), desperate to make a living, are going to all corners of the planet to catch the last remaining fish. With 90% of the large commercial fish gone from the seas, the fishing industries are now "fishing down the food chain", focusing on smaller species and undersized, immature/juvenile fish. This puts pressure on species traditionally considered less or non-commercially viable – including sharks. Japanese and Norwegian fisheries are even fishing tens of thousands of tons of plankton yearly for animal feed. Remove the small fish in the food chain and the entire web crumbles.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 80% of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, already at, or beyond their capacity – with more than 50% of fish stocks considered fully exploited. 1% of the world's industrial fishing fleets account for 50% of the world's catches. It is estimated that global fishing fleets are 250% larger than the oceans can sustainably support around the world, so governments provide subsidies of over $15 billion a year to fisheries. Laws often support the fishermen, and until recently, the oceans, for all practical purposes, have been within their control. Given the stakes and money involved, much fishing occurs illegally; an estimated $9 billion of illegal fishing occurs yearly. Sadly, until recently, these issues have been largely ignored.

Indiscriminant, irresponsible, illegal

In addition to increasing the yield of fishing efforts to highly unsustainable levels, technology has also resulted in irresponsible—and often illegal—forms of indiscriminate fishing ranging from longlines and trawls to gillnets and driftnets. The result? 43 million tons of bycatch.

What is bycatch?

Turtle caught in a gill net is a tragic instance of bycatch. Photo: Paul Wildman, Turtle caught in a gill net is a tragic instance of bycatch. Photo: Paul Wildman, Any species of fish, invertebrate, or marine mammal that is unintentionally caught while fishing for a specific 'target' species is considered bycatch. This unwanted catch is usually thrown back into the sea dead or dying, unless there is some perceived value for the bycatch. Bycatch has become a large, highly unregulated issue within the fishing industry, with certain types of fishing leading to highly unacceptable levels of bycatch. For instance, shrimp trawling can result in 10-15 pounds of bycatch for every 1 pound of shrimp.

Bycatch threatens sharks.

Over half of the 100,000,000 sharks caught yearly are caught as bycatch.

Bottom-dwelling sharks and rays are chased by trawlers, whose fishing practices are so destructive, the muddy telltale signs of the underwater bulldozers demolishing the sea beds can actually be seen from satellites. It is estimated that a few hundred thousand tons of skates, rays, and sharks die annually as a result of coastal trawling.

Sharks caught as bycatch by crab fishermen are thrown away as bycatch.Sharks caught as bycatch by crab fishermen are thrown away as bycatch.Pelagic (open ocean) sharks face an even more threatening fate: an estimated 50,000,000 sharks are caught unintentionally as bycatch by commercial tuna and swordfish fisheries using long lines, drift nets, purse seine, and gillnets. Sharks represent an unusually high percentage of the bycatch compared to other species due to the sheer volume of long lines, the behavior of sharks, the fact that sharks share similar habitats with the targeted species and that sharks are often attracted to easy prey that has already been caught.

Longlines, which Sea Shepherd has been actively campaigning against for years, are used as standard practice in most oceans in the world and can be over 80-100 miles in length with several thousand baited hooks attached to each line – irresistible to many species of sharks. They are a cost-effective and indiscriminant way to fish – utilized by sophisticated and artisanal fishermen alike. Regardless of approach, most sharks caught on longlines are finned – alive or dead, at sea or in port – as the fins are too valuable for many fishermen to resist.

These fisheries typically take blue sharks as the main shark bycatch but when in tropical seas or closer to land they also catch high numbers of silky, oceanic white tip, mako, porbeagle, thresher, hammerhead, and other highly threatened shark species.

Targeted or bycatch – does it really matter?

Highly endangered Basking Shark caught and killed as bycatch by shellfish fishery.Highly endangered Basking Shark caught and killed as bycatch by shellfish fishery.According to the FAO, there are few fisheries that don't catch sharks as bycatch and some fisheries actually catch more sharks than their targeted species. Unintentional? Doubtful.

With the high demand for shark fins, sharks are no longer thrown overboard with a chance for survival, thus blurring the line between targeted fisheries and bycatch, meaning while fishing fleets may declare officially they are fishing for tuna, due to the lack of tuna, they are actually fishing for bycatch – in this case, sharks. And, due to the profitability of shark fishing as well as the decline in other species, many open ocean fisheries are deliberately targeting sharks.

In many places, fishermen are permitted to keep shark fins that are taken as bycatch, removing altogether any motivation to avoid bycatch. It is estimated that 10-20 million blue sharks per year are the victims of long lines – many of them alive when landed. In 1998, 60% of the live blue sharks caught in Hawaiian waters were finned rather than released. The good news is, Hawaii recently passed a ban disallowing all shark finning and shark fins to be sold. However, in many cases, most efforts to encourage fisheries to reduce and to release live bycatch are thwarted by the profits made from selling the fins, encouraging even more destruction.

Order tuna and you might as well ask for a side of shark.

Mako sharks intentionally targeted by tuna fisheries due to dwindling tuna catch. Photo: Julie AndersenMako sharks intentionally targeted by tuna fisheries due to dwindling tuna catch. Photo: Julie AndersenIn addition to the fact the most well-known and valuable tuna, like bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin, and albacore, are on the brink of extinction, there is yet another reason to avoid consuming tuna. Much like the dolphin bycatch that prompted the now prevalent dolphin-safe tuna standards, sharks represent 80-90% of the overall catch in some large industrial tuna fisheries. In 2000, long liners set 1.2 billion hooks. How many of those hooks do you think caught sharks? And before you assume that laws are protecting our seas, tuna and sharks, consider that Japan alone is responsible for catching $6,000,000,000 worth of illegal Southern bluefin tuna in the past two decades. Care to place any wagers on how many sharks caught as bycatch were thrown back alive with fins attached?

By eating tuna, you are contributing to the destruction of sharks. Read Sea Shepherd's position on consuming sea food.

And please, no matter what, avoid not just sharks, but tuna as well. Cut out sushi forever and the oceans will be a far healthier, Shark Friendly place—and we will all feel the benefits.