SEJ’s Shark Attack: “Humankind at Its Worst”

Written by on October 24, 2011 in Marine Life, Other News, Policy & Ocean Law

Emily Tripp
Senior Writer

The ‘breakfast breakout session’ titled “Shark Attack: ‘Human Kind at Its Worst'” at the SEJ Conference on Saturday was composed of a group of four people, passionate about sharks.  The session title came from impressive words from Jean-Michel Cousteau who once said that “shark finning is humankind at its worst”.  It covered topics from shark finning, commercial and recreational shark fisheries and Discovery Channel’s controversial Shark Week.

It was moderated by Michael Williams, investigative reporter and anchor for WPTV West Palm Beach.

The panelists included Matt Rand, Director of Global Shark Conservation, Fabian Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau and founder of Plant A Fish, Mahmood Shivji, Director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University, and Luke Tipple, Managing Director of the Shark-Free Marina Initiative.  They drew an impressive crowd, considering that there were several SEJ after-parties on Friday night, and the session began at 7:30am.

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins. Photo credit: NOAA

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins. Photo credit: NOAA

Matt Rand led the discussion, explaining that 30 percent of shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction, and we don’t have enough data for an additional 50 percent shark species.  Limited to only a five minute introduction, Rand pointed out that we are wiping out the world’s sharks on a very short time scale and there are very few species that are actually healthy.

He showed the audience a few tragic photos of shark fins at a port in Japan where over 1,500 shark fins are left out to dry in the sun every day.  The next picture was of a long-line fishing fleet in Taiwan. Rand tells us that long- liners are the single most lethal fishing gear for sharks globally. Although, he points out that Taiwan has a “fins naturally attached” policy.

Rand explains that finning is not the only problem, the real problem is that we are catching and taking too many sharks out of the ocean.  “A lot of focus in the media is on shark finning, but bodies still come in,” he said.

Spined pygmy shark. Photo Credit SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory, NOAA

Spined pygmy shark. Photo Credit SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory, NOAA

Introduced next, Fabian Cousteau explains that he is not a scientist, but he is here because of his long history with the ocean and because he has enjoyed seeing sharks on his dives since he was four years old.  He believes that “sharks are pretty amazing creatures on so many levels”.  One of the biggest problems, he explains, is that most people see sharks as one species of man-eater.  To illustrate this point, he shows a picture of a great white shark with jaws open.  He believes that media has a lot to do with this because toomany people still see sharks this way, as Jaws, despite our better knowledge.  He points out that thinking about sharks as man-eaters is particularly silly, as “only 20 percent of the 400 species are human-sized or bigger”.

Mahmood Shivji’s introduction brought a new topic to the discussion: what can be done, and what is being done about it?  He includes that one of the most difficult parts in creating successful shark policies is that much of the shark fishing is done in the high seas, which requires international cooperation.  He explains that this is difficult because “you can’t get countries to talk to each other”.

He sparks some controversy when he says that the media focuses too much on the drama.  For example, a fishermen bringing a shark back and hanging its body on the dock isn’t what’s important.  But he explains that it “is sort of a waste of time because that’s not where the real problem is”.  He firmly believes that the real problem is industrial fishing on the high seas.

Luke Tipple takes yet another approach, explaining the economic benefits of leaving sharks in the water.  He is the managing director of the Shark-Free Marina Initiative, an organization that discourages shark fishing directly from the marinas.  He explains that these recreational shark fishermen could take a boat-load of people out, show them the sharks–maybe even catch it and release it again–and bring them back very satisfied with what they saw.  This would make more money than the one-time shark catch. Luke agrees with previous panelists that the media has led local fishermen to think it’s okay to kill a breeding age shark, because they are led to believe that it’s the problem comes from the industrial fisheries.  Tipple gets laughter in a room of sleepy journalists at 7:40 in the morning when he says, “screw that, the problem is everybody.”

Michael closes the session by asking the panelists what headlines they would like to see in the media.  Rand wants the media to be more critical of the administration, and continue to encourage the growing momentum for shark sanctuaries.  Shivji wants us to remember that there is good news in the form of shark sanctuaries, and that we need to be cautious of misinformation, from scientists, NGOs and the media.  Tipple agrees with the first two, and includes that he wants to make sure people are reporting the right stories; for example, fewer reports on shark encounters and more reports on sanctuaries or fishing violations.  Fabian concludes that “all we have to do is open our eyes”; he wants to see more stories on important species so everybody can learn why sharks are important.

Fabian reminds us, “We need those sharks for our own survival.”

Hammerhead shark

Hammerhead shark

Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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