Concern grows about fishing pressure on Pacific sharks

Thousands killed for fins, raising fears for ecosystem

June 18, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

HONOLULU -- Although the threat to humans from shark attacks is infinitesimally low -- even in a state encircled by prime shark habitat -- human attacks on sharks are another matter.

And lately, thinking about the animals has taken a turn in the shark's favor -- chiefly because of a savory and costly broth.

Concern is growing about fishing pressure on Pacific Ocean sharks, primarily blue sharks, which seldom invade places where they threaten humans.

As Asia has prospered, so has its appetite for shark-fin soup. Untold tens of thousands of open-water sharks are being caught by Hawaii-based fishermen or by international fleets that pass through. The fins are sliced off at sea, and the rest of the fish tossed back, there being no ready market for its flesh or hide. Hong Kong retailers reportedly fetch up to $250 a pound for sun-dried fins.

The catch of Pacific sharks is without regulation or quota, and, in fact, occurs mostly unintentionally as part of long-line fishing for tuna and swordfish. Until four years ago, most sharks were thrown back alive. Now, nearly all are "finned." It has become a 1990s boon for crewmen, who sell the fins for bonus cash on top of regular wages.

Fishermen and scientists say the volume is astonishing -- with some long-line fishing boats setting 25-miles of hooks in a single day and pulling up two or three sharks for every tuna, and one for every swordfish. Ashore, shark-fin transactions are conducted in cash through specialty brokers, not established fish markets, and thus leave no reliable tally.

Preservationists, and now some fishermen, decry the waste of killing slow-to-mature animals for their fins alone. They note that heavy fishing in recent years has decimated Atlantic shark populations, with unknown consequences for other marine life. In 1993, the federal government imposed restrictions on Atlantic shark fishing and tightened controls again this year.

Conservationists worry that fishing pressure has shifted entirely to the open Pacific, which could be headed for a shark crash of its own.

"Worldwide, the incidental killing of sharks has reached unprecedented levels," says Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of underwater pioneer Jacques Cousteau.

Kim Holland, a research oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, recently testified before the Hawaiian Legislature against shark-finning. Holland says it should be outlawed and quotas imposed on shark fishing.

"Because of the slow growth rates of sharks, there are no sustainable coastal shark fisheries anywhere in the world," Holland warns. "They can be fished out much faster than they can reproduce."

Why should a food-hungry world care about sharks? Doesn't it stand to reason that fewer sharks in the ocean means the survival of more fish? Many scientists say the opposite may be true.

The Western Pacific Fisheries Coalition, a cooperative venture between environmentalists and Hawaii fishermen, has come to the defense of the shark on grounds that it is an essential component of a healthy ocean.

Bob Endreson, spokesman for the group and president of the Hawaii Fisherman's Foundation, says anecdotal evidence and science, although incomplete, suggest that "apex" predators like sharks cannot be eliminated from the food chain without harmful consequences. In Tasmania, for instance, an 85 percent reduction in sharks led to a population explosion of octopus, which all but wiped out the local lobster fishery.

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