On March 8 Governor Eddie Baza Calvo (R-Guam), signed into law a bill banning the sale, possession and distribution of shark fins. A major fishing hub, this U.S. territory now joins a growing chorus of Pacific Ocean voices in support of shark conservation.
The need for these voices is critical. These key predators are vital to the health of marine ecosystems. Tiger sharks, for example, have been linked to maintaining the quality of seagrass beds. Dugongs and green sea turtles, common prey for tiger sharks, often forage in seagrass. With no predator to control this grazing, an important habitat could be over-consumed and possibly lost, endangering all of the species that live in and depend on it.
Many shark populations around the globe are in deep trouble. Worldwide, up to 73 million are killed every year primarily for their fins, which are valued for their use in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Huge numbers are also killed inadvertently by fishermen who are not targeting them.
Certain types of fishing gear exacerbate this problem. Surface longlines, for example, consist of monofilament lines that extend up to 40 miles and are baited with hundreds of hooks. Longlines are primarily used to catch swordfish, tuna and other valuable fish. Unfortunately many other non-target species, including sharks, are caught with this gear and often thrown back in the water dead or dying.
Despite the jaw-dropping numbers harvested each year, few countries involved in the shark trade manage their fisheries. In January, an analysis produced by the Pew Environment Group and TRAFFIC found that only 13 of the top 20 shark-catching countries have developed national plans of action to protect these animals -- one of the primary recommendations from a 2001 United Nations agreement on sharks. It remains unclear how those plans have been implemented or if they have been effective.
There is hope, however, and the international community should look to the example of bold policies being implemented by leaders around the Pacific. Increasingly the world is hearing from small island nations and territories about the need for meaningful conservation action. More and more, we see these islands taking strong stands against unsustainable fishing practices that are depleting global shark populations:
- In March 2009, Delegate Madeleine Bordallo of Guam introduced the Shark Conservation Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House quickly passed the bill, which closed loopholes in the U.S.'s shark finning prohibition, but Senate passage took almost two years. President Obama signed this bill into law in January 2011.
- The Pacific island nation of Palau in September 2009 declared its waters a shark sanctuary, prohibiting sharks from being commercially fished. The Maldives, in the Indian Ocean enacted, similar protections in early 2010.
- Hawaii passed a state law in May 2010, prohibiting the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins. The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands passed a similar bill in January of this year, and Guam's bill passed in February unanimously.
- The Marshall Islands earlier this month, in the latest of this growing movement, enacted their own moratorium on the shark fin trade, following reports of expanding black-market export operations.
This effort is spreading beyond the Pacific Islands. In 2010, Honduras enacted a moratorium on commercial shark fishing and also joined Palau at the United Nations General Assembly in challenging other countries to follow suit. This year, at the same time as the Marshall Islands announcement, Costa Rica increased restrictions on commercial fishing for an expanded marine park surrounding Cocos Island, the home to large numbers of hammerhead sharks.
In the Bahamas, a 20-year-old ban on longline fishing gear has left its waters as one of the few places in the world with relatively healthy shark populations. This has paid off for the small island nation. According to the Bahamas Diving Association, diving tourism has contributed up to $800 million to the Bahamian economy since the longline ban. There are, however, no laws there that specifically protect sharks. Pew is currently working with the Bahamas National Trust to gain permanent protections in all of the Bahamas' Exclusive Economic Zone, an area encompassing 243,000 square miles of ocean.
The Bahamas provides a unique opportunity to conserve healthy populations for these animals before it is too late. Indeed, the large numbers of these fish in its waters have already drawn the attention of a local seafood exporter as a potential source of fins. Protecting sharks in the Bahamas would bolster the country's economy and environment and continue the conservation trend that the Pacific Islands launched.
As shark populations continue to plummet, the need for action in all corners of the world remains imperative. The healthy ocean surrounding the Bahamas right now is the exception; it is our hope that in time it will become the rule.