By Mike Jaynes
Many have remarked on the progress being made within the animal ethics world and noticed its ever increasing shift from the fringe interest to mainstream. This is a good thing; however, the shift is occurring much too slowly for many animals who are not typically thought of as warm and cuddly. I have also written about performing elephants, and even though many people seem to have great affection for the elephant, they are rapidly disappearing from Earth. One such animal, which is suffering due to negative media portrayal and ignorance, is sharks. Wrongfully portrayed as “man eaters” by the Jaws film franchise and other sensational media, these apex predators are enduring suffering and nearing extinction due to the ever-increasing influence of man. In fact some species of sharks are down to five percent of their once numbers, according to the Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. And as for their man eating reputation, Stewart also reports that more people are killed by soda machines tipping over on top of them each year than by sharks. This short article focuses on the practice of long line fishing – called longlining – and its destructive effect on sharks and other marine species as well as the practice of shark finning.
Longlining is the way the commercial fishing industry maximizes its catch; it is its version of traditional hook and line fishing. Long lines are trailed behind vessels and are anywhere from one mile up to sixty miles in length. The line is buoyed by plastic floats and at intervals of around a hundred feet, secondary lines trail deeper into the sea. The entire line is baited with thousands of hooks loaded with squid, fish, or as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reports on their website, sometimes dolphin. The line is left floating by the vessel. After a period of twelve to twenty-four hours, the vessel comes back and simply reels in the miles of longline. The PEW Charitable Trusts reports almost 2 billion of these hooks a year are used, and they are illegal. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reports the usual target fish for these longlines are swordfish, tuna, and Chilean Sea Bass; however, a large number of marine mammals including endangered turtles, albatrosses, dolphin, whales, and sharks and other by catch are caught and inadvertently slaughtered by longlining. The HSUS also reports that up to 40,000 sea turtles, 300,000 seabirds, thousands of marine mammals and millions of sharks die annually on longlines in the Earth’s oceans.
Sea turtles are among the most endangered creatures. The turtles are often
attracted to the baited hooks, and they die after swallowing the hooks. This
causes massive internal injuries, and the death is often slow and most
likely agonizing. They can also get their flippers entangled in the
longlines and drown if the section of line on which they are ensnared is
bitten by a large fish and it swims downward in a panicked escape attempt.
Especially at risk is the leatherback sea turtle because the light sticks, says the HSUS, used to attract the bait look like squid, their favorite food. Agencies such as the Inter American Convention on the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles are pursuing research to increase the welfare of sea turtles. For example, a new circle hook has proven to be much less deadly than the traditional J hooks used on longlines.
Also attracted to the longline baited hooks are sperm whales, oceanic dolphins, pilot whales and orcas who can get entangled in the lines and drown or swallow the hooks and die similarly to sea turtles. Even if the line is cut and they are released, the hook often remains in their stomachs or throats and they swim off to a certain slow death.
Seabirds, particularly albatrosses, are also killed by the hooks. The birds fly overhead and see the bait on the shiny hooks from the air. They dive, take the bait, and become hopelessly trapped to drown after exhaustion or some other cause. As for seabirds, the HSUS and other groups work closely with international fishing and environmental agreements such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Awareness is spreading, but it is not spreading quickly enough.
The illegal practice of shark finning may well be the worst use of longline fishing. Shark finning involves catching sharks at sea and de-finning them while still alive and most often throwing the finless, helpless shark, writhing in pain, back into the sea to sink and either drown or be eaten by predators. Delicacies such as shark fin soup are in high demand in Asian countries (and other places around the world) and it fetches an extremely high price, sometimes up to $300 USD per bowl. With China’s economic boom, more people than ever can now afford the soup so the demand has skyrocketed. As a result, shark fin has become an extremely valuable commodity. The documentary "Sharkwater" reports it is only trails cocaine as the most profitable trafficked illegal substance in the world. The finning of the sharks while alive, one of the most disturbing practice of the illegal trade, often occurs at sea in order to save money and transport. The body of the shark does not have economic value. Therefore the fins (only accounting for 4 percent of sharks’ body weight) are taken from the very much alive shark, thrown in large containers, and the body is discarded back into the sea. All the shark fin boats transport back to shore are the fins thereby saving space, time, manpower, and fuel.
Sea Shepherd reports longlining is “the most significant factor in the rapid diminishment of shark populations in the oceans”. Please see the aforementioned Sharkwater for complete information regarding the importance of this apex predator, but if longlining is not successfully quelled, most species of sharks will be lost from the oceans within the next decade. Longlining is illegal in most coastal waters of most countries, however the law does not apply to open international waters and this is where the practice continues practically unchecked.
The group Sea Shepherd enforces anti-shark finning laws within certain countries’ territorial waters with the support of the country’s government and by salvaging longlines left at sea without displaying an identifying flag (all according to international law). They have been confiscating longlines since 1989 and have collected them ranging from 0.3 to sixty-two miles in length. Progress is being made, but much remains to be accomplished.
In August of 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported a federal agency (The National Marine Fisheries Service) was weighing a decision that would allow longline fishing off the California coast for the first time in history. The federal proposal could pass any time, but California legislative leaders have passed a resolution urging protection of endangered sea turtles in hopes of fighting any such future decision to allow longline fishing off the California coast. The resolution is not a law, but Teri Shore, Program Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project said in a July 15th, 2008, article “"[the resolution is] sending a clear message from the state legislature to the federal government that we really don't want this and we don't think they should even consider it until further studies have been completed."
Even the gentle Whale Shark, who is toothless and only eats tiny plankton, is being killed for its huge fins. The Whale Shark is the largest fish on the planet, and its great fins can weigh many pounds. Many divers love to dive with whale sharks because they often play with them, turning upside down to let the divers scratch their bellies. Even if the whale shark wanted to, it is physically incapable of harming a human outside of an inadvertent tail strike. The whale shark is curious, doesn’t run from fishing boats, and cannot swim very fast. That plus its immense size makes it an unfortunate target for shark finners. The whale shark has done nothing to deserve this; none of the sharks have.
With the unfortunate misnomer of man-eater, some wonder why we should care about sharks. They are predators and scavengers, both activities providing vital roles to crucial marine ecosystems. Not enough is known, Sea Shepherd reports, regarding the impact of the removal of sharks from the seas thus the widespread killing of sharks must stop. Sharks have key differences from fish. They must keep swimming their entire lives in order to breathe. Constant swimming forces water through their stationary gills and enables them to take oxygen from the sea. Also, of paramount importance from an ecological conservation viewpoint, sharks do not lay thousands or millions of eggs as many fish do. It takes many sharks up to 12 or 15 years to reach sexual maturity and then they only produce one pup per year. Such a slow and complicated reproductive cycle means, tragically, that sharks may already be unable to ever recover from the damage we have already done to them. The interdependence of all creatures in the ocean is important and sharks cannot be removed from that ecosystem without dire consequences. And besides, it just isn't compassionate to treat other species as if they are ours to do with what we will. Sharks deserve our protection, and I only hope it is not too late for them to receive it.
I believe longlining should be abandoned not only to protect endangered sea turtles but all of the by catch and target catch as well. As humanity continues to increase in number, our ever-encroaching destructive capability and ravenous consumption will continue to devour the Earth and all its living resources. Shark finning is not in the public’s consciousness and awareness needs to spread to help these sharks who have roamed the Earth’s oceans for some 450 million years predator-free. Now, they have found their first predator, humankind. Hopefully one day all life will be valued intrinsically without consideration of what profit of incentive it might bring to humanity. Seek out organizations such as Seashepherd.org, Wildaid.org, Cocosisland.org, Sharktrust.org, Tortugamarina.org, Seachoice, Oceana Shark Alliance, Shark Trust, Biteback, Marviva, Sharkwater.co, Sharks.org, and Coare.org for ways to help sharks. Spread awareness to those you know and Please save the Sharks.
Mike Jaynes is an American writer living in the Southeast. He has published on various animal ethics issues including elephant captivity and issues facing sharks.