If you’re a shark, the Pacific Islands are not a bad place to be these days. Yesterday, the Senate of Guam followed Hawaii’s lead and became the third region to move to ban the sale, possession and distribution of shark products in the U.S. territory. Hawaii was the first U.S. state to make the move last year, followed by the Mariana Islands north of Guam. Palau, the Maldives and Honduras all also prohibit all commercial fishing of sharks in their waters.
How did this swath of the ocean become the epicenter of shark conservation? Partly because, in the long run, a live shark is worth more than a dead shark.
All of these island economies rely on the tourists who come to ogle their ocean life – and sharks are usually at the top of their list. After supporting the U.S. military defense industry, tourism is Guam’s biggest moneymaker.
But Matt Rand, the director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation program, says there’s more to this growing trend than the bottom line. “My observation is that Pacific Islanders understand that there is a balance that needs to be struck out there in ocean,” Rand says. “When you overexploit it, you throw it out of whack.”
Guam, a long-time fishing port, had seen a severe decline in its shark population over the years as shark fishing became more and more aggressive to meet the growing demand for shark fin in Asian cuisine. (Here’s an article I wrote about shark fin soup if you want to know more.) After the U.S. passed the first iteration of its law that bans shark finning – the practice of catching sharks, cutting their valuable fins off, and throwing the animal carcass back in the water – Guam noticed that its shark population began to recover.
(Read my earlier post about the passage of the new Shark Conservation Act of 2009, first introduced by Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, here.)
Whether the governor of Guam signs this full ban into law in time to save the sharks in the area is another question. “The hope is that some of these populations will come back,” says Rand. “We have to wait and see. In a lot of places, once sharks have been depleted, it’s a very slow recovery.”
Every year, up to 73 million sharks are culled every year to support the shark fin trade, despite the fact that 30% of all shark species are threatened with extinction. Sharks grow slowly, and they don’t reach sexual maturity until later in life. When they do, they have comparatively few offspring at a time, unlike, say, big tunas, which release millions of eggs when they spawn. As a result, the sharks that are netted are either adolescents that have not had a chance to reproduce or are among the few adults capable of adding new pups to the mix — and never will. Says Rand: “They may be fierce predators, but they are actually very vulnerable.”