Friday, 10 September 2010

Blog request - Shark Conservation

Since I started all this I have received a lot of support from people all around the world, I have made new friends and received kindness and encouragement from people who relate to my story, either because of a shared love for sharks or the desire to get out and do something worthwhile with the gift of life we have been given.

I've said from the off, this is as much about people as it is about sharks and I thought it would be nice to give people the chance to suggest related topics for me to blog, I posted this suggestion on the facebook group (if you haven't already look it up, "From the Office to the Ocean") and quickly received a number of suggestions so here we are, number one in a series of requests.

A good friend of mine, Tom, has asked that I explain the details as to why shark conservation is such an important issue as, during a conversation with his girlfriend, he realised he knew very little about the ins and outs of what is a complicated subject.

So, why is shark conservation so important?

Every separate eco-system is populated with a chain of organisms that operate together, naturally, meaning the "whole" can maintain successful balance, thus ensuring a healthy environment in which all the organisms in the chain can prosper. Imagine each of these eco systems as a jigsaw piece, fix all the pieces together and you have a successful planet.

Of course, in order for each species to "operate" in the manner nature intended, it is imperative that an animal species population does not explode or alter it's behaviour to a degree where its increased number affects everything else in the chain. My friend, Jenna, is insistent that I am unable to explain anything to anybody without using an analogy of some sort...she's right as well so here goes!

Think of an eco-system as a car engine. The engine is built using various parts, fixed together in certain ways so that when petrol is added, the process starts whereby each part of the engine can then do it's job, working together, meaning your car starts to move. Your end goal is to drive your car, you need all it's parts to work together to make that happen.

What would happen if you removed some parts of the engine, put too much oil in or heaven forbid, put diesel in a petrol engine? Would your car work properly, if at all? Would it explode in a ball of flames?

It's a highly simplified analogy but one which illustrates the importance of even the smallest of components in any form of engineered or biological creation.

In every biological eco-system, there is a natural order, more commonly referred to as the food chain. Some unfortunate creature, usually the smallest, has to find itself propping up this chain, it's the vegetarian and it seems that everything else wants to eat it. Sounds a bit unfair really doesn't it but this is the clever bit, for every animal that wants to eat the tiny vegetarian, is an animal that wants to eat that animal and so on and so on until we reach the top guy, nothing messes with him, he's bigger, stronger, more aggressive and usually has really big teeth...Nothing eats him, he is what is referred to as the "Apex Predator."

The role of the Apex Predator in any eco-system is, it can be argued, the most important of all because he makes sure all the animals between him and the tiny vegetarian do not get out of control meaning an animal in the chain gets so overpopulated it devours everything in it's natural diet, removing the predators of the smaller animals meaning they grow in number, devouring everything below them and so on, until only a handful of the chain is left but they don't have anything left to eat because they've eaten it can see where this ends up I presume. Ironically, the biggest, strongest, most aggressive animal in the chain, ensures the survival of everything below it, right down to the bottom of the chain, in fact, he is the vegetarian's greatest ally. Again this is a simple explanation of highly complex biodiversity but it works for this purpose.

Good examples of Apex Predators are the lion, tiger, polar bear, crocodile and of course, the oldest of them all, the most feared of all and the most iconic of them all, the Great White Shark.

Large predatory sharks are the undisputed masters of their domain. Adult Great White, Tiger, Bull and Oceanic Whitetip Sharks have an armoury of weapons which ensure they can do what they do without fear of becoming prey for another animal, unless it's another, bigger shark of course or on rare occasions, Orca.

Bare this in mind, sharks have been around longer than trees, more than 400 million years. When the oceans were created and life evolved within, they needed an apex predator, that apex predator became the large prehistoric sharks, the most famous of which was Carchardon Megalodon, the Great White's older, much bigger, brother. Since there has been widespread marine life on earth, even in its most primitive form, there has been sharks, the only animal to have survived five separate periods of extinction and they're still here...but only just.

Everybody has heard that sharks are attracted to blood, vibrations in the water and like to eat vulnerable juicy fish and mammals but why is this? One of the key roles undertaken by our finned friends is to eliminate the sick and dying in our oceans, sharks love nothing more than an easy, nutritious meal and in doing so, stop the oceans turning into a garbage dump of rotting, dead bodies which in turn causes bacteria which can lead to disease and let's face it, would you want the rain that soaks you to come from a giant cesspool of rotting animal carcasses? I didn't think so...

Another vital, yet less discussed role sharks have, is to keep the gene pool of marine animals strong. Believe it or not, sharks keep animals alive by eating them! That obviously doesn't make sense upon first view but I'll explain. By eating the weaker, sick, genetically inferior individuals of a species, the shark is picking out weak links in the genetic chain meaning the animals they eat, seals for example, who make it to sexual maturity are the smarter, quicker, more agile individuals who then pass their strong, smart genes onto their young, via a willing female. This strong chain of genes means the animals that are breeding are the ones that actually have a chance of creating more animals who stand a chance of avoiding the business end of a shark long enough to make yet more babies and so on. Clever isn't it! Schooling behaviour, camouflage, defence mechanisms, all these behaviours of every marine animal has been influenced by sharks.

As you can see, sharks play a vital role in the health of the oceans, what is it that depends most on the top of a food chain? The bottom of the food chain and in the case of the ocean, the bottom of the food chain is responsible for the oxygen you breathe and the atmosphere of our planet, you don't really want to be messing around with that.
The animals at the top of the food chain are, let's face it, cool. Sharks, lions, tigers, crocodiles, they kick ass right? What's not brilliant about being one of these bad boys?

Unfortunately, there is one big problem with apex predators, they live in a very competitive, rough world and if there were too many of them, they'd eat everything, the food chain would collapse and everything would die which is, in anybody's book, a proverbial fly in the planet's ointment. To combat this, nature ensures that apex predators give birth to few young and that's after waiting years to reach sexual maturity.

If we take the example of the Great White, he's born and although larger than a lot of fish at around two to four feet in length, there are still plenty of bigger fish, including older Great White Sharks who wouldn't think twice about eating him. Junior has to spend the first few years of his life avoiding bigger sharks, learning to hunt fish and other smaller sharks until he's old enough to start having a go at seals and sea lions. As prey goes, pinnipeds (the aforementioned seals and sea lions) are a different ball game all together, fast, agile and clever, Junior better get good at catching them because if he doesn't he's had it. Assuming our young friend manages to get the hang of this pinniped catching business, he's now coming up to the surly, moody teenager stage and about 2.5 - 3.5 metres in length, he spends the first stages of adolescence gorging on blubber rich mammals and learning, sometimes the hard way, that the bigger, older sharks eat first.

Junior is now in his mid to late teens and if he's anything like I was, he's got one thing on his mind and that's the ladies. It's not that easy though because as most ladies will tell you, they often prefer a more mature, stronger male with whom to do the business so he's got to fight his way to the front of the queue somehow and show he's up to the task. It's a good job he's a big strapping lad and he manages it but now he's got to hope his new girlfriend can survive the twelve months she's carrying his pups or it will all be for nothing and he has to do it all again in eighteen months to two years, presuming he's still around then.

So our young friend has had to combat other sharks wanting to eat him, faster prey than him that doesn't want to be eaten by him, bigger sharks warning him to stay away "or else..." and the most dangerous dating scene in the ocean, waiting sometimes up to twenty years just to get his end away and hopefully make some babies of his own! This doesn't even take into account genitally challenged "sport" fishermen, longlines, the floating death traps that are damaged commercial fishing nets, the Chinese, or anti-shark nets, in which the majority of sharks, approximately 90%, are caught inside the netting area meaning they have been swimming amongst bathers and have been caught when trying to return to the open ocean, but hey, I guess we need our shark fins from somewhere right? Yep, I went there...

So what have we learned? In short, that sharks are responsible for ensuring the oceans maintain a healthy balance meaning the oxygen you breathe is coming from a healthy source so in simple terms, not enough sharks means what you rely on to live is being messed with in a very, very dangerous way.

Sharks have a very dangerous enemy, one which doesn't harvest, it devastates, its only intention is seemingly to take every single last living animal on the planet and sell a tiny portion of it's overall mass for large sums of money. This enemy, for arguments sake we'll call it "China," really has it in for sharks. The reason? so they can use their fins to add texture and the cancer causing chemical, mercury, to a bowl of pork or chicken soup, yummy. It is a glib remark above, that which places the blame solely on China, indeed some of the very worst offenders in this mafia funded, blood soaked trade, include Spain, France, America and the UK, however, the fins are provided for what is an Asian delicacy, if shark fin soup did not exist, sharks would not be harvested solely for their fins to the tune of an estimated 40 - 100 million every year. The "culture" excuse doesn't wash with me either, if that were the case, lets bring back slavery, institutionalised murder, rape, torture, incest and all the other groovy cultures that have been eradicated from civilised society yes?

The commercial harvesting of sharks in the last thirty five or so years has led to over one third of all shark species being listed as endangered to critically endangered. Shark fin, shark cartilage and squaline (ladies, check your make up and see if you're smearing dead shark all over your mush) are all by-products of an unsustainable marine annihilation which, if left to continue as it is, will eradicate many shark species and could realistically be the thing that does us all in once and for all, for a bowl of soup, some make up or a cancer cure which doesn't even work because, surprise, surprise sharks do get cancer.

I saw a brilliant T-Shirt the other day which said something along the lines of "Only when we have eaten the last remaining fish on earth and there are no more, will we realise you can't eat money" and it's hit the nail on the head. Organised shark diving operations make more money for local communities than commercial fishing and rely on healthy shark populations. The ocean is healthier, shark numbers can increase and indigenous people make money and can live better lives, what's not to like about that!?

I'm going to put it in the simplest terms. We need a healthy ocean to survive, a healthy ocean needs plenty of sharks. There isn't anywhere near plenty of sharks anymore.

The final thing I will say is that the shark is an icon, sharks are mysterious, beautiful and enigmatic, nature at it's most fascinating and awesome best, do you want to live in a world where you explain to your children that we robbed them of the chance to see these most amazing of animals so some rich people can have some poisonous texture in their chicken soup?

If it's good enough for Slash then it's good enough for you!

If you want advice on how you can help, visit and go to "The Project" and click on "Shark Conservation" and "Name and Shame"

By the way, I will be appearing on the radio tomorrow, Friday 10th, between 4-6pm UK time. The show can also be streamed online from here!

Tom, I hope that's answered your question!


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog! IMHO this blog is educational, articulating very well the bottom line. This is simple to understand; why we must all come together to bring awareness of the dire straights we're in, to a populace who has NO idea of the consequences we will all share, by what the greedy and the desperate are doing.

Thank you for your dedication and the work you do!

Many Blessings,
Nancy O'Fraley

OfficetoOcean said...

Thank you for that Nancy, I really appreciate the time taken to read through and to let me know what you think, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!


Anonymous said...

Dave, I wish you every little bit of success with this. Good luck.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow! This is an amazing article! It's refreshing to see something like this. Feels like you're swimming up stream sometimes when you're trying to explain to people the issues we are facing with food, over fishing, and shark finning. Thanks for this. I'll spread the word to get people to read it :) :)

Francis Anthony mahon said...

This is truly an amazing factual and well written statement i hope as many people read this as possible. i have sent this link to many of my friends in hoping this will set them right when it comes to sharks. i am very pleased with the content of this article as it is clear and easy to understand and most of all very informative. i thank you so much for getting this message across.

Adrian said...

Just heard you on Manchester Rock Radio, Excellent interview and a very informative blog. Good luck with the project, sounds awesome. I love sharks too, I love diving with them all over the world and generally being around them. Once quit a management job when the company put shark steak on the menu!

Awesome to see your going to make a difference.


joanD said...

thank you so much for taking the time to write this - it's so clear! this problem has almost zero recognition around the pacific northwest; we learned of it from a young naturalist at the maui aquarium. i'll pass this along and ask others to do the same. we hope to include this subject in the seminar series our volunteer group does each winter - tried to get a speaker to appear alongside our community's outdoor screening of 'jaws' last summer but no luck. but we'll keep at it! and again, mahalo!

OfficetoOcean said...

Thank you for all the comments, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and I'm glad you enjoyed it so much!


Liam Wright said...

well done lad! Great project and you're doing very well with it! You've taken the leap of faith and keep on like this and you'll make a great contribution to the diving community, one which many people will be proud of.

Anonymous said...

Cheers mate, I very much hope so. Let's hope I get the chance!

Amanda said...

Another brilliant blog. Thanks for the education Mr D :D x

Sabrina Repa said...

Amazing. I'm sending this to as many people as possible. There's not enough in the news/media about this issue and it IS a BIG issue. Maybe they could talk about it in the Big Issue. Haha.. Anyway, really, well done and thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dave, a bit late reading this Blog but well worth the wait.....what a great read and very educational. Thank you and keep up all the good work because it will definitely pay off!...Jan x

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

Great blog. I was in China recently and was amazed and disgusted at what the Chinese will eat. Nothing and I mean nothing is off the menu. I don't think it is just shark's that are in danger. I work closely with many Chinese people and used to joke about Tiger's penis with a Chinese work colleague and how it was believed that a small dose of TP could help with a man's virility. I hate to think how many tigers (another Apex Predator)were destroyed for their penis to help Chinese men achieve erections. It's an incredibly complex issue that will only get worse as the wealth in China rises and more people are able to gain access to these delicacies. Elephnats tusks and Rhino's horns are another delicacy that comes to mind. One thing I will say about Chinese people though is they do listen to reason and do understand the repercussions of actions. If we can get the message through to the right people (that would be the people at the top) it will have an impact, as they will not want to see the end of the Shark for the sake of meal to boast about.