April, Gary Adkison, manager of the U.S. branch of the Swiss-based Shark
Foundation, got an anonymous call telling him of a shark-fishing tournament
to be held in early June in Fort Myers, Florida. The caller was distressed;
this was an annual event he thought was no longer acceptable, but he said he
could not speak out in public.
Adkison sent an appeal to his worldwide e-mail list of shark supporters, and
within a day tournament sponsors and city officials were flooded with
protest calls and mail. He and his allies then contacted the local chamber
of commerce and other sponsors of Shark Fest 2009, a two-day event with a
street fair, boat show, and children’s fishing derby, as well as the shark
tournament. They suggested an alternative: a catch-and-release tournament,
captured on streaming video that could be viewed on a large screen by the
On May 20 the local Beach Observer reported that "due to an overall
dissatisfaction and a misinformed general public about the killing of
sharks," the rules of the June 6-7 tournament would change: it would be
catch-and-release. Five sharks would be tagged in advance, and a $10,000
prize would be awarded to anyone who caught one of these.
Adkison was jubilant as he told the story. Sure, he said, it would have been
better to have no shark tournament at all, but this was a big step toward
the larger goal of shark protection worldwide. "Word is getting out that the
sharks are in trouble," he observed.
Whether that information will help save these awesome ocean predators from
extinction remains to be seen. Sharks have plied Earth’s waters since before
the dinosaurs, but now their survival is threatened by human actions.
Within the past 50 years, populations of some large shark species have
declined by 80 to 90 percent, said Andy Nosal, a doctoral student at Scripps
Institution of Oceanography. Actual numbers are hard to come by and most are
from the Atlantic Ocean, where fisheries have been better monitored than in
the larger Pacific. "Asian nations don’t monitor catches and kills as
Europeans and Americans do," said Adkison. Yet as Nosal pointed out, "a
decline in one area affects the whole world," because some sharks travel
great distances. A basking shark might swim from the Atlantic around Africa
to the Indian Ocean or around South America to the Pacific, for example.
The numbers of large sharks such as scalloped hammerhead, great white, and
thresher--apex predators all--in the North Atlantic declined by 79 to 89
percent between 1986 and 2000, according to a report by Ransom Myers of
Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, published in Science in 2003. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed
some lesser-known species as critically endangered and others, including the
great white shark and longfin mako, as vulnerable.
The main culprits are longline fishers going after tuna and swordfish and
snagging sharks as bycatch, and European fishers capitalizing on the growing
popularity of shark meat worldwide. Shark finning is a third--and
increasingly destructive--practice that is affecting shark populations
worldwide. Nosal considers finning the greatest threat now, with overfishing
close behind. As other species are overfished and no longer available, he
said, shark meat provides an inexpensive alternative.