Photographer: Mike Korostelev www.mkorostelev.com/Getty Images

Shark Diving Prompts Island Nations to Urge End to Fin Trade

  • Countries with shark-diving tourists want fin trade to stop
  • Shark sanctuaries may provide protection, activists say

Island nations that will call for the protection of sharks at a global conservation conference starting in South Africa this week need the support of bigger countries to reverse the decline of the fish, whose fins are coveted in Asia, according to activists.

Shark diving and other forms of ecotourism are key sources of income for archipelagos from the Maldives to the Bahamas, prompting governments to push for the protection of sharks from the international fin trade. But local measures aren’t enough, said Edd Brooks, director of the Cape Eleuthera Institute Shark Program, based in the Bahamas.

Thresher Shark
Thresher Shark
Photographer: Banfi Franco/AGF/UIG via Getty Images

“The solution for shark conservation needs to be looked at on a regional and ocean-wide scale, because most of these animals don’t give a damn about where the border is,” he said. The Bahamas is home to the largest shark diving industry in the world, and has some of the strongest measures to protect the fish. Still, its shark species continue to decline.

Island nations have drafted proposals to add 13 species of sharks and rays to a list of endangered creatures. The proposals will be voted at a meeting that starts Sept. 24 in Johannesburg and is hosted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES. The 183 parties from around the world will discuss and vote on varying degrees of protections for animal and plant species.

Silky Sharks

Shark diving tourism generates more than $100 million annually for the Bahamas and about $40 million for Fiji. Sri Lanka has proposed adding thresher sharks to the listings, which have a long tail to stun prey, and the Maldives wants silky sharks included.

As many as 100 million sharks are killed every year and the most sought-after fins can sell for as much as $1,600 per kilogram in some Asian countries, according to Luke Warwick, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ shark-conservation campaign.

“Thresher and silky sharks are still species of fisheries’ interest,” he said by phone from Washington. “Their fins command a high price and they can even sell the meat locally. That now is starting to clash with the drivers of the kind of diving for sustainable ecotourism.”

South Africa, a destination for tourists who want to spot Great White sharks, has also noticed a decline in populations. Chris Fallows, a tour operator for Apex Shark Expeditions, has logged sightings on every tour he’s run from False Bay, South Africa, for over two decades.

Sightings Decline

“In the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for us to have 15 to 20 sharks on a trip. Nowadays, we average about 5 to 6 sharks,” he said. “Obviously, that contrasts sadly with the incredible increase of people wanting to see these animals alive.”

In neighboring Mozambique, where most shark and ray species aren’t protected, whale shark sightings have declined by almost 80 percent, according to the Marine Megafauna Foundation.

“Listing these threatened species on international agreements such as CITES is a major step in the right direction and helps to develop regional and global conservation,” Andrea Marshall, co-founder and principal scientist at the foundation, said in an email.

South Africa hasn’t finalized its position on sharks and rays but is aware of the increase in threats to sharks and their habitats, and has implemented a “comprehensive infrastructure on a national scale” to address shark conservation, the Department of Environmental Affairs said in an e-mail.

Shark Sanctuaries

Bigger countries may not be as motivated to push for protection as island nations that depend on tourism, according to Warwick. “Are they going to hear the call of these other governments that are basically saying, ‘We know you understand this industry, you have it too, but it’s all we have,”’ he said.

Brooks has traveled from Antigua to Barbados and the Virgin Islands to look for a larger-scale solution. “We’re working toward this idea of a chain of shark sanctuaries that actually can start to provide this regional protection that they need. The Caribbean is one area where I think we could be quite successful at reversing this decline.”

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