Few animals inspire the awe, fear and respect that sharks command, yet there is still so much we don’t know about these often misunderstood creatures — and the benefits they provide.
I first joined Conservation International (CI) in 2004 to open a marine conservation office in the Galápagos Islands, where I’ve lived for the past 20 years. At that time, sharks were being illegally extracted from the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR) at an alarming rate, largely due to the practice of shark finning. With strong commitment from the government of Ecuador, Galápagos National Park Service and a range of local partners led by WildAid and the Charles Darwin Research Station, we began a multifaceted program aimed at better understanding and protecting sharks.
Thanks to improved law enforcement, better scientific understanding of shark migration and improved public communications efforts, illegal shark fishing has been significantly curtailed. Industrial vessels are kept out of the GMR by a state-of-the-art Vessel Monitoring System and rapid response by the Galápagos National Park Service. Efforts to illegally export shark fins are now thwarted by highly-trained sniffer dogs that root through cargo to detect shipments.
We recently received exciting news that a shark tagged in the Galápagos showed up on a receiving station way out near Clipperton Island. If this shark can run the 2,000-kilometer (1,243-mile) gauntlet scattered with hundreds of fishing boats back from Clipperton to Galápagos, it will find protection here. But given that up to 73 million sharks are captured worldwide each year, this is a big “if”.
In 2007 I became the regional director of CI’s marine conservation work in the four-country Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS). Shark finning is now illegal in all four ETPS countries — Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama — and government capacity and will to enforce these important laws is stronger.
These are all remarkable achievements, but as overharvesting continues, they are only first steps. We cannot protect what we do not understand. Toward this end, a ground-breaking new book entitled “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks” was released this week. In the book, Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin examines the role that these animals play in ocean ecosystems and the fascinating ways people around the world relate to the ocean’s top predators. She also highlights CI’s work in Indonesia’s Birds Head Seascape, and our team’s discovery of the “walking shark” (Hemiscyllium sp.).
I hope that this book will help to convince more people that protecting sharks is in everyone’s interest. For one thing, hundreds of millions of people depend on the oceans for food, and sharks help keep that food supply intact. Economic studies from around the world have proven that live sharks are worth far more to a wider range of beneficiaries than dead sharks, which typically only benefit a single fisherman and chain of intermediaries.
But I would also argue — based on some of the most memorable moments of my life — that the importance of shark conservation goes beyond protecting them for the sake of their direct benefits to humans. If you ever get the chance — and dare to take it — jump in the ocean with a few dozen scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) or the world’s largest fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Take it from me — the only risk you’ll run is developing a lifelong commitment to protecting one of the ocean’s most majestic creatures.
Scott Henderson is the regional director of CI’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program.