Are sharks threatened with extinction?

The main tank in Underwater World in Pattaya was the scene of a major promotional and educational scuba diving event on Sunday 22 January. The central theme was to educate visitors and interested parties to the seriousness of the trade in shark fin and highlight the poisonous nature of the consumption of these fins.

The promotion was organised by Gwyn Mills, the founder of Dive Tribe (www.thedivetribe.com), in association with Underwater World, Sentinel Divers, Marine Project, Free Descent Clothing and students from Mahidol University.

The event was specifically timed to coincide with the start of the Chinese New Year, a period when shark fin soup is consumed across much of the Asian region and in Chinese communities in many other countries.

Gwyn paints a depressing and much under-publicised picture explaining that in under two decades, “We humans have wiped out 90 percent of some species of sharks…This means the phytoplankton eaters will increase which will then lead to a breakdown in the marine environment.”

As he states, “It’s just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be OK.”

Much of this depletion can be directly traced back to the hunger for shark fin soup. Yet, as Gwyn says, “Sharks consume marine trash polluted with heavy chemicals, and shark fin analyses have shown extremely high concentrations of methyl mercury.”

When I was a kid we lived not far from Manly Marineland, an aquarium built on Sydney Harbour. On visits to Marineland the creatures we most wanted to see were the sharks.

Most people, especially children, can relate to the shark, and have a vision in their consciousness of an animal of great destructive power. Yet, shark attacks per se are rare. You’ve got more chance of being bitten to death by a rabid French poodle in a Parisian park than having an arm unceremoniously amputated by a White Pointer while paddling about the Great Barrier Reef.

Popular entertainment, in terms of movies like Jaws and documentaries showing white pointers attempting to turn a black-clad man in an aqualung into a liquorice all-sort, mean the average person regards sharks with about the same degree of concern as they would have for a tax inspector with a broken leg or a politician with severe piles.

While many in the world are slowly coming to realise the incredible importance of the shark, it is ‘culture’ which is proving harder to overcome.

When a ban on shark fin soup came into effect in the American state of California recently, one Chinese-American man, interviewed on TV, said he could not believe the ban, stating Chinese culture was “5,000 years old”, as if this justified a continuation of the slaughter.

I imagine this man of ‘culture’ is not aware of the importance of sharks to the welfare of the oceans and ultimately to we humans. If sharks could speak I guess their comeback might be, ‘we see your 5,000 years and raise you 420 million years.’

Changing a ‘cultural’ mindset is difficult at the best of times. In terms of time it is usually generational. If Gwyn Mills and his likeminded compatriots are to be believed, mankind doesn’t have a generation or more to redress the serious imbalance.

Gwyn says, “If we remove [sharks] from our oceans this will upset the natural balance and can lead to a catastrophic chain of events. Humans rely on the ocean for the oxygen we breathe and 70 percent of that oxygen is produced by phytoplankton and algae. Sharks are vital in the food chain because they remove many of the small fish and crustaceans that eat this phytoplankton and algae.”

It is an apocalyptic warning that may sound far-fetched, but do we, as a species, want to take the chance sharks will be reduced to the level of ‘endangered’ and our children grow up in a world in which these magnificent predators are a rarity or non-existent?

I want my children to be able to visit a place like Manly Marineland or Pattaya Underwater World and see sharks, as a living, breathing entity, not a picture on a wall or a taxidermist’s science project.

(People interested in learning more about the work being carried out by Dive Tribe can e-mail them at info@thedivetribe.com)

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