In this article, TV presenter and wildlife enthusiast, Steve Backshall, speaks out for sharks in a bid to help save this misunderstood predator.
From within the gloomy deep-blue, an alien form glinted and glimmered. I hung motionless above the seabed, barely even daring to breathe in case my expelled bubbles spooked the ethereal shape just beyond my gaze. Then, languidly, lazily, the metallic torpedo shape turned towards me, and started to come into focus. The shark was perhaps four metres long, half of which was made up by a scimitar-shaped tail that trailed behind it like a silver banner in the breeze. Its large eyes were billiard ball black, the whole form of the fish seemed cloaked in aluminium foil. As its mirror flanks sinuously twisted side to side, it caught the early morning light, and suddenly the thresher shark was revealed in all its bizarre, brilliant glory. It was one of the most overwhelming wildlife encounters I’ve ever had, with a shark we have right here in British waters.
Then, languidly, lazily, the metallic torpedo shape turned towards me, and started to come into focus. The shark was perhaps four metres long, half of which was made up by a scimitar-shaped tail that trailed behind it like a silver banner in the breeze.
This time last year, the UK’s tabloids frothed at the mind with every editor’s fantasy story; a man-eating great white shark set to terrorise British beaches. It got even more frenzied with the outlandish speculation that ‘Lydia’ (the satellite-tagged shark heading across the Atlantic in our direction) could be pregnant. She could bring a whole new clan of man-eaters to our shores! The story fizzled out as Lydia nosed south towards more familiar waters, perhaps off towards the Mediterranean, but the hysteria had already exposed the British public’s lack of awareness of the wildlife that inhabits our surrounding seas. Though great whites may be rare visitors to our waters, they have never stayed long enough to be caught or identified here. However, many people will be surprised to know that we do have at least 50 species of sharks in British seas. Unfortunately, ignorance of our marine environments and an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality has allowed sharks to be pillaged on a scale that is beyond comprehension.
In British seas, the nearest thing we have to a great white is the porbeagle shark. This species looks like a smaller version of the great white, feeding on squid, and other fish and sharks, and shares some of the vulnerabilities of its more iconic cousin. Porbeagles are long-lived, but take a long time to mature. They may be pregnant for a year or more, and produce few young. This is a common strategy amongst sharks and other apex marine predators, and has worked fabulously for them over the last 400 million years. However, porbeagles now find themselves facing a ruthlessly efficient hunter: us. The sharks have been overfished to the brink of extinction, mostly for their meat and fish oil, and for their fins, which are used in Chinese shark fin soup. Fishermen searching for more commercially viable species kill many porbeagles as accidental by-catch; indeed they are often sold as ‘swordfish’, which their meat resembles. Now critically endangered in the North Atlantic, fisheries face decades of panic management to make sure paltry populations of this wonderful shark stand any chance of surviving. Porbeagle sharks are not alone in their plight; angel sharks and common skate are functionally extinct in our waters, and overfishing of tope and spiny dogfish (once our most abundant sharks) has almost entirely depleted their numbers.
The sharks have been overfished to the brink of extinction, mostly for their meat and fish oil, and for their fins, which are used in Chinese shark fin soup
It’s a conservation nightmare that has been repeated a thousand times through recent human history: not recognising that animals are close to extinction until it’s far too late to save them. The reasons I’ve chosen to focus on sharks are manifold. Firstly, because they have precious few friends, and are fundamentally misunderstood animals in need of an image makeover. Secondly, because they are probably the group of animals that has brought me the most joy and fascination throughout my life, through jaw-dropping and unforgettable encounters. And thirdly because their biology, and our fishing practices, make them peculiarly vulnerable. These are species that are vital to the wider ecosystem health: it is essential that we do not lose sharks from our seas.
So what is the answer? We have all the science and research at our fingertips to know what we can and can’t catch, but regulations need to be put in place to make sure we keep our fishing at a sustainable level. History shows us all too often that unrestricted exploitation and unregulated trade leads to population numbers crashing, potentially never to recover. This is all too true for sharks; while some protection and management has been secured for those most under threat, many species remain exposed to the impacts of uncontrolled fishing.
We need to start acting now. Organisations like the UK-based Shark Trust are calling on high seas management authorities and governments, demanding the adoption of effective management for stocks before there’s a need to talk recovery plans. Campaigns such as Bite Back are aiming to bring an end to the selling of shark fin soup at UK restaurants. Direct pressure onto supermarkets can change what they choose to stock. Science-based catch limits would be sustainability in action, both for the species and for the communities that rely on them. If we lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, our planet’s oceans will be infinitely poorer places.
What is being done to protect these amazing fish?
There are a number of organisations working to protect the future of sharks. The Shark Trust has been dedicated to shark conservation since it was founded in 1997. Their No Limits Campaign aims to stop uncontrolled shark fishing by working to secure science-based catch limits for shark species. So far limits have been imposed for species such as the spiny dogfish, and most skates and rays. However, there is still work to be done for species like the blue shark, shortfin mako, tope, smooth-hound and catshark. The Trust has also been heavily involved in campaigning to stop shark finning. Although a ban on shark finning was adopted in European waters, it is still legal to buy and sell shark fins in most countries, and the Trust is working with governments to tighten regulations and ensure compliance. Their Bite Back campaign aims to stop restaurants in the UK selling shark fin soup.
Why we should be saving sharks instead of fearing them
They are endangered because of us
It is actually sharks that should fear humans and not the other way around. While only six people were killed by shark attacks in 2014, millions of sharks are killed every year by human activity. The large, shallow water species, such as angel sharks, are under the greatest threat.
Their ecosystem needs them
Sharks play a hugely important role in their ecosystem. They maintain a balance by keeping populations of other species level and because they prey on the weakest animals, they control the spread of disease and improve the gene pool for future generations.
They keep our oceans healthy
The ocean is the world’s most important ecosystem. It provides a third of the world with food, produces more oxygen than all the world’s rainforests put together and controls the planet’s climate. Sharks dying out would have a devastating effect on the ocean ecosystem.
This interview first appeared in World of Animals issue 24, written by Phillip Watts.