Sharks only tend to make the news when they occasionally kill someone or, like this week, we’re celebrating Shark Week!
But did you know we’re killing millions of sharks every month – for no other reason than soup. WWF Ambassador Simon Reeve, whose BBC series ‘Indian Ocean’ aired in 2012, witnessed the gory details of this and many other destructive attacks on our sealife during his travels, as he tells us…
“Rolling around in the surf, the huge dead shark made a pathetic and upsetting sight. The victim of a lucrative global trade that provides shark fins for Chinese restaurants, the powerful adult female shark had just been caught off the coast of Mozambique and dragged back to a beach, where its fins were quickly cut off by poor local fishermen.
I was travelling through Mozambique while filming my TV series Indian Ocean, and had witnessed the capture and finning of the magnificent creature. Nelson, the young leader of the group, was just one of hundreds of shark fishermen along the stretch of coastline. He had no idea what happens to the fins after he sells them to a middleman. It was left to me to explain the fins would probably be shipped to China, where the almost tasteless cartilage would be put into a soup supposed to symbolise the wealth of the person ordering it. Nelson was completely amazed.
Watching ‘shark finning’ was just one of dozens of worrying encounters and experiences I had while circling the ocean, on a journey which took me from South Africa, up the east coast of the continent, around India and down through Indonesia to south-west Australia.
My journey blended a travelogue with stories, history and current affairs, as I explored all manner of issues global and local, and met hundreds of characters while travelling through 16 countries. With a small team from the BBC, I visited glorious coastal wildlife sites in places like Kenya and Australia that are threatened by uncontrolled development, saw the effects of deforestation in Madagascar, encountered threatened lemurs, penguins, elephants and manta rays, and discovered a groundbreaking project regenerating threatened coral in the Maldives. We even witnessed frontline combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
But during the first leg of my journey, travelling from South Africa through Mozambique to Zanzibar, I kept returning to the war we are waging against sharks.
They are apex predators, chomping away at creatures underneath them in the food chain and helping to maintain a balance of life in the seas. They are, quite simply, the most important fish in the sea.
Think of them as a lion or a tiger, an extraordinary creature that deserves our respect, not to be caught and finned for an obscene trade for soup.
Sharks kill several humans every year, but we are wiping out millions of them every month. Astonishingly, there are now thought to be just a few thousand Great White Sharks left on the planet. Some experts think there are just hundreds left.
And of course our war doesn’t stop at sharks. Across the globe our seas are under attack from pollution, over-fishing and climate change. Time and again on my journey around our third largest ocean I heard from local fishermen, conservationists and scientists that fish numbers are in catastrophic decline.
Even a century ago fishermen were able to annihilate some species with small wooden fishing boats. Now we have giant fishing armadas hunting down their prey on an industrial scale.
The fleets deployed by rich European and Asian countries are largely to blame. But even poor fishermen like Nelson are part of the problem. In Mozambique, Madagascar, India and Indonesia, I met fishermen who were earning a pittance for their work, but were one of thousands or tens of thousands of fishermen criss-crossing the sea grabbing whatever they could from under the waves.
At Veraval, a port in north-west India, I saw the extraordinary sight of 4,000 trawlers waiting until the end of the monsoon season so they could put to sea. There were so many of them clogging the harbour I couldn’t see open sea. Together they land one million tons of fish each year at Veraval. One million!
Can there be any doubt this is having a massive impact on fish and marine life in the Indian Ocean?
We clambered onto one fishing boat, completely at random, spoke to the skipper, and I asked him if it was becoming harder to fish because of the number of boats.
“Now there are so many boats here you can’t even count them. The number of fishing boats has been increased and that is another reason we find it difficult,” he told me. “Because of this we have to go quite far to do the fishing, 400 or 500 kilometres.”
I asked whether he thought we might be destroying fish stocks in our seas. “Every year we are catching less fish,” he said. “So every year fish stocks are reducing.”
Elsewhere I saw the giant European and Asian trawlers that are now targeting tuna in the Indian Ocean after depleting stocks in our other great seas. The over-fishing of tuna is rapidly becoming one of the biggest issues in the Indian Ocean.
Yet despite the collapsing fish numbers, they’re still building more boats at Veraval. In fact the fishing industry is subsidised by the Indian government. Ultimately it’s up to governments to reduce the impact of the world’s growing population on the environment. Politicians have to take a long-term view and protect our seas.
At the moment we seem to think our oceans are so vast and so deep that we can take what we want from them, and chuck as much rubbish into the water as we like, and the oceans can take it and keep providing us with bountiful supplies of fish.
But there’s just too many of us, with huge appetites, and we are emptying our oceans. On a prawn trawler off the east coast of India, I travelled with more poor fishermen who pulled in a huge net after dragging it along the bottom of the sea for more than an hour. The catch was pathetic, because the ocean there has been fished to death.
Part of the problem is that we waste so much of what we catch. Bycatch, as it’s known, is the unwanted fish and marine life that is pulled in along with valuable fish, and it’s a colossal global problem.
Prawn fishing is responsible for a third of the world’s discarded bycatch. That’s tens of millions of tons of marine life that’s being caught unnecessarily each year, most of which is just thrown away, dead. The fine nets catch even tiny juvenile fish, which haven’t yet had a chance to breed, so fish stocks never have a chance to recover.
The result of our overfishing and reckless destruction of bycatch is that in some areas of our seas, the biomass of jellyfish now exceeds that of fish, and jellyfish blooms have been recorded around the planet. Outbreaks in the Sea of Japan have involved a gargantuan jellyfish 2m in diameter weighing more than 200kg.
Should we worry? Should we care? Well if we want our children and grandchildren to have a future, then obviously yes. I have a one-year-old son, and I worry about the world he will inherit.
All our seas are part of one global ocean, which acts like Earth’s circulatory system, and makes our planet habitable. The risks posed by over-fishing and polluting our seas is not just that we won’t have fish to eat in the future, but that the entire balance of life will be affected.
If we continue to wipe-out life in the Indian Ocean and our seas globally at the current rate, we are threatening the future of our blue planet, and putting ourselves in peril. It’s as simple but as serious as that.”