For most of human history, protecting wild animals was not seen as a critical component to our own lifestyle. The result has been that countless species have gone extinct or are well on their way. For many decades, humans have been the primary drivers of change on the planet, during which time we have brought biodiversity to the brink of collapse. However, as we face many environmental problems, it seems that we finally are realizing that protecting biodiversity is not a luxury that we pursue simply for enjoyment or for ethical or moral reasons. We now know that all the species on land and in the water make up a complex network that is essential to our own survival and to everything that is critical for our society, including carbon sequestration, food production and clean air and water.
What we do, or fail to do, in the next decade may determine whether we will continue to prosper. This isn’t about saving the planet — this hunk of magma and sea water will survive no matter what we do. Planet Earth can shake off a species and start from scratch. It wouldn’t be the first time. What’s at stake is our own species’ existence, our culture, our economies and our quality of life.
So how does that relate to sharks, a species that I and my nonprofit organization are focused on protecting? Well, they are a key component of diversity in the ocean. As predators at or near the top of the food chain, they play a critical role in keeping fish populations healthy and strong and balancing the complex food chain. But much like we have done with so many species on land, we don’t actually value sharks for the incredible job they do. While the media only talks about sharks when they bite someone, people in the fishing industry only count the cash value of shark’s parts. Yet their true value is nearly incalculable, because across the range of 400 or more species, sharks fulfill so many crucial ecosystem services. Good luck trying to replace that function with anything man-made.
If we have learned anything from our past mistakes, we should take decisive steps to protect species in the ocean instead of waiting until they are drastically overfished or end up on one of the endangered species lists. The big question is whether people will recognize this responsibility and will give animals, such as sharks, a fighting chance.
Securing a future with sharks
Let’s leave out emotions and any ethical concerns for a moment and look at this from a purely economic point of view. Besides their contribution to a balanced ecosystem, sharks are also the drivers of billion-dollar industries. Add up the profits alone from scuba diving tourism, recreational fishing and the film and media industry — all of which make big profits every year off sharks — and you will end up with billions of dollars generated every year. It is all money made off living sharks. Those same sharks can make money for many decades of their lives. In contrast stands the one-time income from extractive fishing, which makes use of that resource once. And then it’s over for that individual animal. If you want to argue dollars and jobs, protecting sharks makes a whole lot of sense.
Years ago, an international movement made sure large sections of wilderness on the African continent were protected, the last haven for animals that used to roam in great abundance on this globe. Elephants, lions, rhinos and so many other species are now fenced into game parks and reserves. But there are not enough wild animals to keep any semblance of balance in the natural systems. We have taken over that role — poorly.
Sharks have been roaming the oceans for more than 400 million years. Now, we are decimating them at unprecedented rates. While there are a multitude of problems that need to be addressed — overfishing, bycatch, the international trade of shark fins, loss of habitat and fish populations — we must also start to plan for shark reserves in our ocean, to protect the few precious locations that exist where rare species are hanging on by a thread. These locations are few and far between, and they are vulnerable. It is frightening to think how quickly they could be gone.
Marine parks are much more difficult to establish than those on land. Humans have a tendency to ignore anything that is sight-unseen. Sometimes, protecting a place because of one particular species, that one charismatic animal, is the pathway to turning things around. There are outstanding examples we can learn from, such as the Shark Reef in Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon or Palau’s (in Micronesia) Shark Sanctuary. In both cases, the economic value of scuba divers paying to dive with sharks was recognized, sharks were protected, and the benefits were felt in the local community as well as in the health of the reefs and fish populations. Both locations have established economic models that are sustainable for generations to come. Everyone wins. But what is even more amazing is that this protection of sharks paved the way for even greater measures. A few years ago, Palau decided to essentially make their whole Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) a Marine Protected Area with extremely limited commercial extraction.
Sharks can lead the way but we have to give them a break, and we can’t take anything we have right now for granted. For example, the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Mexico, are the superstars of the shark diving world. Guadalupe Island is to sharks what Virunga, Rwanda, is to mountain gorillas. And that is how we should start looking at these important locations. Whatever protection has been established is fragile. The animals are one poaching incident away from being gone. Commercial fisheries interests and corrupt governments are not helping the matter.
If you want to call that alarmist, just look at what happened with South African great white sharks. We took that place for granted. They had tons of sharks. Some even feared there were too many. Then things took a drastic turn a few years ago, for reasons that lead back to how humans manage the sea. The South African population of white sharks suddenly disappeared. It’s hard to know if they will come back or recover because it’s unclear whether the sharks have been killed, died off or moved on. (The blame was shifted to rogue Orca attacks, which is a highly questionable theory. The much more likely reason is probably linked to increased longline fishing).
The same can happen in Guadalupe, or places like Bahamas Tiger Beach, which are rare gems where the high biodiversity is still somewhat intact. For now, the constant pressure to bring back shark fishing is always looming, because people take a short-term view and see more profits in killing sharks.
There need to be places where sharks are fully protected. And with it, we must put in place supportive programs for local communities to benefit from conservation. When fishing is the only alternative, sharks cannot be protected. They will be taken, even if it is illegal.
If sharks are not commercially extracted, then those communities that desperately need to fish sharks for sustenance will have a more secure resource in the future. Because the people who need to catch a shark to eat it are not the problem.
Dive tourism has traditionally been the most powerful economic driver of sustainable, non-extractive industries. Tourism is at its most powerful where charismatic megafauna (mantas, sharks, turtles, whales) are present. But this cannot be the only option. Many regions are simply not accessible enough. Solutions must be tailored to the individual locations. One size does not fit all. We must be strategic in finding whatever is needed in the respective regions to help make a shark reserve or an MPA a benefit to the animals as much as the human communities. That is the only way it will last.
Incremental progress is needed, and it has to start now.
Best Hotspots to Dive with Sharks
Some places seem to have held on to their shark populations due to the fact that people love to dive with sharks. And there are other spots rumored to be out there, in need of study and protection. Most of these locations have already lost some of their former biodiversity and shark numbers, but there is still potential to protect something before all is lost. Most locations vary in species seasonally, so make sure you do your research before you plan a trip.
Isla Guadalupe, Mexico Great white sharks
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Neptune Islands, South Australia
Great white sharks
Cape Town, South Africa
Great white sharks, also sevengill, blues and makos along the coast
Republic of Palau
Reef/tropical sharks and mantas
Several reef species, particularly famous for bull sharks
Rangiroa, Fakarava, Moorea, French Polynesia
Reef/tropical sharks and mantas
Reef Sharks, particularly famous for tiger sharks and great hammerheads
Jardines de la Reina, Cuba
Reef sharks, pelagic sharks, famous for schools of scalloped hammerheads)
Reef sharks, famous for whale sharks, hammerheads
Jupiter, Florida and Oahu, Hawaii
Great place for intro level shark encounters for non-divers
Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, México
Playa del Carmen, México
Whale sharks, reef/tropical sharks and mantas
Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands
Sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, pelagic species