Fishing for a Solution

Sustainable shark fisheries management and ocean optimism

Shark-fishing legislation varies from country to country. Some countries permit shark fishing but ban finning at sea, some allow finning, and others prohibit all harvesting.

Divers care about the ocean and are rightfully concerned about the degradation of many ocean ecosystems and the overexploitation of myriad ocean creatures. When there's bad news about the health of our oceans (as there often is), we as a community need to sound the alarm so everyone knows a problem needs to be solved. Similarly, we need to celebrate when there is good news on the ocean conservation front. That idea is the basis of the Ocean Optimism movement (#OceanOptimism), which Alert Diver covered in detail in the Winter 2018 issue.

In brief, supporters of the Ocean Optimism movement believe it's important to share good news about the ocean for a few essential reasons. We need to avoid societal burnout and overwhelming negativity that might make our friends and family stop listening to future reports of bad news. Instead of constantly broadcasting negative messages, we need to share hope by showing that these terrible problems can be solved and that we are actively working toward solutions. When a remedy for a conservation issue is found, we must broadly share it for use by others.

As a shark conservation biologist, I've been heartened by how effectively the diving community has raised the alarm about declining shark populations around the world. Like you, I love and care about sharks and am deeply concerned about unsustainable overfishing of shark populations in many places around the world. As a science communicator and believer in the Ocean Optimism movement, however, I'm surprised that shark conservation success stories do not get the same level of attention as some of the bad news. In 2011 researchers analyzed U.S. and Australian media coverage and found that four times as many news stories mentioned negative effects on shark populations as mentioned any kind of conservation success.1

Many developing nations don’t adopt shark-fishing regulations like those of
the U.S. and United Nations.
Few people consider that shark population recoveries occur as a result of sustainable shark fisheries management rather than total bans on all shark fishing or all trade in shark products. Many environmentally conscious divers believe shark fisheries cannot possibly be sustainable and must be banned. My conservation biology research, however, focuses on measuring and improving the sustainability of shark fisheries; in my opinion the science is clear that sustainable shark fisheries can and do exist. Evidence indicates that some well-managed shark fisheries can actually result in the recovery of once-overfished species of sharks.

As part of my doctoral research, I surveyed members of the three largest professional shark and ray research societies.2 Approximately 83 percent of respondents believe that sustainable shark fisheries are possible or exist in the world today, and 90 percent believe that sustainable shark fisheries — instead of total bans on fishing — should be the goal of future conservation efforts. In a 2017 paper, Colin Simpfendorfer and Nicholas Dulvy concluded that while unsustainable overfishing remains a huge problem, sustainable shark fisheries do exist.3 Consumer sustainable seafood guides such as Seafood Watch have recommended 10 U.S. shark fisheries.4 In short, the idea that sustainable shark fisheries can and do exist (in some countries with significant research and management resources) is not particularly controversial within the scientific and management community.

Underwater photographers tend to be big proponents of shark conservation,
finding inspiration and challenge in achieving proximity to sharks.
Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 1993 Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean was put into place, seven species of Atlantic sharks have increased in population.5 Based on combined data from six different scientific surveys conducted between 1975 and 2014 along the U.S. East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers found that every species of shark managed as part of the large coastal shark complex and all but one species managed as part of the small coastal shark complex (blacknose sharks in the Gulf of Mexico) had increased in population after being overfished in the 1970s and 1980s. In Southern California, a ban on coastal gillnets reduced bycatch that was a major source of mortality for several shark species, allowing for population recovery.6 These species are currently supporting sustainable, well-managed fisheries while simultaneously recovering in population from their previously overfished state. A total ban on all shark fishing was not needed to protect and recover these sharks' populations, but enlightened fishing practices and regulations enforcement were necessary.

So far, these recoveries and examples of sustainable shark fisheries have mostly occurred in the U.S. waters. Similarly, about 75 percent of the landings from sustainable shark fisheries identified by Simpfendorfer and Dulvy come from U.S. shark fisheries.3 The United States is in an unusual situation in terms of research and management resources. Many nations that currently have unsustainable shark fisheries simply don't yet have the awareness, desire or resources needed to adopt a U.S.-style fisheries management model. Through capacity-building workshops and resource sharing, however, it is possible to help developing nations improve their ability to sustainably manage fisheries. This is work that needs to accelerate, but some successes are already evident.

Fish prized as trophies are often the larger, sexually mature fish. This practice
can be particularly disruptive with sharks, which have a long gestation period
and a small number of offspring.
While science may be clear on these issues, science does not equate to values. If you love sharks and don't want to see any shark hurt for any reason, that's a valid viewpoint. As a conservation biologist, I am concerned with the long-term existence of populations and species, and sustainable fisheries that do not pose a long-term threat to populations and species do not bother me. Most disagreements on the subject arise when well-intentioned people misunderstand the research associated with sustainable shark fisheries management. It is not likely that shark fishing can be eliminated entirely, but with education and enforcement it is possible to regulate fishing in a sustainable manner. Perhaps that's the compromise that best serves our global population of sharks.

Unfortunately, these misunderstandings have led to threats against or harassment of well-intentioned scientists and government employees. For example, in 2015 NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service announced the 2016 Atlantic shark fishing season would open Jan. 1 instead of July 1, a continuation of a start date that had been in place since 2013 and for 17 of the previous 20 years. A few people incorrectly opined that the U.S. was opening a shark fishery for the first time ever. A resulting online petition went viral with tens of thousands of signatures demanding that the U.S. not open a shark fishery, when in reality the U.S. had long been one of the biggest shark-fishing nations in the world. Some NOAA employees and shark researchers received nasty, threatening emails and phone calls from conservationists. That level of acrimony is counterproductive and a little alarming when you're on the receiving end.

The way sharks are harvested is an important consideration in any science-based management plan. Gill nets are both efficient and indiscriminate in capturing sharks and other marine life; for this reason some countries have outlawed them.

There are also widespread misunderstandings about shark finning and the shark-fin trade. The term shark finning refers only to catching a shark, cutting off the fins of that shark at sea and dumping the carcass of that shark at sea. This unsustainable and inhumane practice is rightly condemned and was officially banned in the United States in 1994 as part of the NOAA management plan for Atlantic highly migratory species. While people have launched online petitions to prevent shark finning in U.S. waters, that practice is already illegal. The confusion occurs when a shark's carcass makes it to land — that shark has, by definition, not been finned, even if the shark's fins are later sold. This leads to understandable confusion, but it's important to note that the practice of selling shark fins from landed carcasses was intended as part the original strategy for a ban on shark finning as part of a United Nations sustainable fisheries plan. The plan's creators theorized that the ability to sell fins only from landed sharks would encourage full use of the rest of the animal. Additionally, the storage space in a fishing vessel is filled sooner with sharks' carcasses than with shark fins, leaving more live sharks in the ocean and leading to a more efficient use of those animals taken.

Shark finning has a specific definition and is not a concept interchangeable with shark fishing. The global shark-meat trade is growing, while the shark-fin trade is shrinking, which may not mean much to the shark landed but is critical for fisheries management. Fisheries will exist as long as there is demand, but it seems possible that demand for both shark meat and shark fins will decline over time.

Seeing one of the planet’s premier predators in the wild is what drives great
white shark enthusiasts to the Neptune Islands off South Australia, Guadalupe
Island in Mexico and the waters off Gansbaai, South Africa.

As someone who is concerned about sharks, I am inspired by how many divers care about sharks and want to help them. As a scientist who is empirically studying these problems and their solutions, however, I think ignoring success stories from sustainable fisheries management is problematic. The threats facing sharks are complex, and there is not a perfect solution. Differing personal values often lead to support for different types of shark conservation policies,7 but I believe science proves that sustainable fisheries can and do exist and can allow the recovery of shark populations.

If you want to find some ocean optimism, you could do worse than shark-population recoveries under sustainable fisheries management plans that exist today. Future regulations should be crafted in accordance with science and prudence. While it is probably unrealistic to assume all shark fishing will end, a well-regulated fishery based on science and sound ecological practices may be the best hope for long-term sustainability of shark populations.

About the Author
David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology at Simon Fraser University, where his research focuses on the sustainability of North American shark fisheries. Nicholas Dulvy is his postdoctoral supervisor.
The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act
While many readers of Alert Diver might prefer a total ban on shark fishing, the global market for shark products continues to exist. Approximately 100 million sharks are harvested annually,1 and more than 70 percent of the most common shark species in the trade are at high or very high risk for extinction. Educating consumers about the wasteful and unsustainable fishing practice that supports shark-fin soup is a huge step in the right direction, and there is some evidence that is taking place in Asian markets. Over time there will likely be decreased demand for shark meat because of mercury contamination. These are incremental moves toward attitudinal shifts in consumption, but sharks may not have the time for preferences to change. Legislation is the best way to quickly enhance conservation efforts.

To that end, the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) has joined other conservation groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society in support of the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act (HR 5248), which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March. DEMA suggests this law "establishes a certification process to ensure that foreign nations engaging in the shark trade into or through the United States conserve and manage populations of sharks in a manner that is comparable to regulatory programs in the U.S. and effectively prohibits the practice of removing shark fins and discarding the carcass at sea."

There is a grassroots campaign to let U.S. legislators know that the dive industry supports this step in shark conservation. Your voice can make a difference; if you support the bill, tell your representatives. Protecting shark populations ensures that future generations of divers will continue to experience these magnificent creatures. DEMA's online petition in support of HR 5248 is at

Alert Diver Editorial Staff

1. Muter BA, Gore ML, Gledhill KS, Lamont C, Huveneers C. Australian and U.S. news media portrayal of sharks and their conservation. Conservation Biology 2013; 27(1):187-196. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01952.x.

2. Shiffman D, Hammerschlag N. Preferred conservation policies of shark researchers. Conservation Biology 2016; 30(4):805-15. doi:10.1111/cobi.12668.

3. Simpfendorfer CA, Dulvy NK. Bright spots of sustainable shark fishing. Current Biology 2017; 27(3):R97-R98. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.017.

4. Shiffman DS, Hueter RE. A United States shark fin ban would undermine sustainable shark fisheries. Marine Policy 2017; 85:138-140. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2017.08.026.

5. Peterson CD, Belcher CN, Bethea DM, Driggers WB, Frazier BS, Latour RJ. (2017). Preliminary recovery of coastal sharks in the southeast United States. Fish and Fisheries 2017; 18(5):845-859. doi:10.1111/faf.12210.

6. Pondella II DJ, Allen LG. The decline and recovery of four predatory fishes from the Southern California Bight. Marine Biology 2008; 154(2):307-313. doi:10.1007/s00227-008-0924-0.

7. Shiffman DS, Hammerschlag N. Shark conservation and management policy: a primer for nonspecialists. Animal Conservation 2016; 19(5):401-412. doi: 10.1111/acv.12265.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2018