(Rob Stewart, The Guardian) Sharks are in serious trouble. Research this week has revealed that more than half the world”s ocean-going sharks face extinction in the near future. I first became aware of their plight in 1999, on an assignment in the Galapagos Islands. Instead of photographing them, I wound up cutting dying sharks from illegal long lines. The experience led me to investigate the huge demand for sharks – even in the best-protected national parks on earth.
The simple reason is shark fin soup. Through much of Asia, this is a symbol of wealth, served as a sign of respect. A single pound of shark fin can sell for more than $300. Shark bodies don”t have substantial value, so fishermen started discarding the bodies and keeping only the fins. People have also been falsely led to believe that shark cartilage can cure conditions such as arthritis and cancer. In fact, it has been proved that shark cartilage has no disease-beating properties.
Each year, 100 million sharks are killed and no one bats an eyelid, largely because the public is petrified of sharks. The reality, as most divers know, is that sharks are mostly harmless to humans. Of the 350 known species, only a few pose a hazard. In 2002, I set out to make a film that would bring people closer to sharks. I thought if people could understand them, and see them as beautiful, necessary animals, they wouldn’t be afraid. I joined Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, on an expedition to deter poaching in the ill-protected Cocos Island reserve.
This journey shifted the focus of the project from a beautiful underwater film to a drama full of corrupt governments, attempted murder charges and machine-gun chases, all because of the demand for shark fin and cartilage. Studies by scientists of Dalhousie University, in the Canadian city of Halifax, suggest that Atlantic shark populations have declined as much as 89% since 1972. This week’s study, from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, confirms the crisis.