British Sharks in Troubled Waters

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 29/07/2015

From the dawn gloom deep-blue, an alien form glinted and glimmered. I hung motionless above the seabed, barely even daring to breathe in case my expelled bubbles spooked the ethereal shape just beyond my gaze. Then, languidly, lazily, the metallic torpedo-shape turned towards me, and started to focus into view.

Steve Backshall British sharks

The shark was perhaps four metres long, half of that was made up by a scimitar-shaped tail that trailed behind it like a silver banner in the breeze. The large, light-gathering eyes were billiard ball black, the whole form of the fish seemed cloaked in aluminium foil. As its mirror flanks sinuously twisted side to side, it caught the early morning light, and suddenly the thresher shark was revealed in all its bizarre, brilliant glory. It was one of the most overwhelming wildlife encounters I've ever had, with a shark we have right here in British waters. 

We could lose sharks from our seas within my lifetime, and that simply must not happen. Lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, and our planet’s oceans would be infinitely poorer places.

Many may be surprised to know that we have perhaps 50 species of sharks in British seas. The nearest thing we have to a Great White is the Porbeagle shark. They look like a smaller version of the Great white, feeding on squid, and other fish and sharks, and share some of the vulnerabilities of their more iconic cousin. But no need to panic, they're shy of humans, and rarely seen except by fishermen. They're long-lived, but also take a long time to mature, may be pregnant for a year or more, and produce few young.

It's a common strategy amongst sharks and other apex marine predators that has worked fabulously for them over the last 400million years. Until suddenly they were faced with the most efficient hunter this planet has ever seen; us. Porbeagles have been fished to the brink of extinction, mostly for their meat, their fishoil, for their fins, which are used in Chinese sharkfin soup, and as accidental bycatch by fishermen searching for more commercially viable species; indeed often sold as 'swordfish', which the meat resembles. Now critically endangered in the North Atlantic, we face decades of panic management to make sure paltry populations of this wonderful shark stand any chance of surviving. And they are not alone, angelshark and common skate are functionally extinct in our waters, overfishing of tope and spiny dogfish (once our most abundant sharks) has meant there is simply no point commercial fishermen trying to catch them anymore. 

It's a conservation nightmare that has been repeated a thousand times through recent human history; not recognizing that animals are close to extinction until way past zero hour. Tigers for example numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the last century. Profligate persecution means we may now have only 3,000 left, and it costs an estimated $80million a year to prevent their extinction. As only $50million is being donated, their future still looks bleak. We waited till there were only 22 Californian condors left in the wild before taking action, removing the entire population into captivity until they could recover, at well over a million dollars per bird. And these are dramatic iconic species that the general public fall for, and thus will support. Woe betide the frog or fish that suffers the same fate. Too often we in conservation cheer when an animal is listed on CITES as being endangered, as CITES is a global recognition that the animal is 'that' endangered, because this empowers the trade bans and awareness needed to start protecting them. Surely it would make much more sense to recognize which species are vulnerable early, and take steps to limit their exploitation in order to avoid expensive and often doomed 'panic conservation' in the future? 

I've chosen to focus on sharks because they have precious few friends, and are fundamentally misunderstood animals in need of an image makeover. Also because they are the animals that have brought me the most joy and fascination through my life, through jaw-dropping, unforgettable encounters - I owe them! And shark biology, and our fishing practices make them peculiarly vulnerable. These are species that are vital to the wider ecosystem health. 

So what is the answer? Well we have all the science and research at our fingertips to know what we can and can't catch. There just needs to be regulation put in place to make sure we keep our catches sustainable. History shows us that unrestricted exploitation leads to populations crashing, potentially never to recover. Sharks are caught in staggering numbers; in 2012 alone over 280,000tonnes of sharks were reported landed globally; probably 100million sharks gone every single year. 

We need to act to stop uncontrolled shark fishing now; adopting effective management before crisis recovery plans are needed. The high seas can no longer be an out of sight out of mind wild frontier where anything goes. Fisheries have seen a threefold increase in Blue Sharks landings since 2000, which simply cannot continue. Organisations like the WWF, and UK-based Shark Trust are calling on high seas management authorities, and those governments whose fleets fish these waters. Campaigns such as 'Bite Back', are aiming to bring to an end the selling of shark fin soup at UK restaurants. We need to get as aware as possible about what we eat and where it comes from. Direct pressure onto supermarkets can change what they choose to stock. Science-based catch limits would be sustainability in action - both for the species and for the communities that rely on them.

We could lose sharks from our seas within my lifetime, and that simply must not happen. Lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, and our planet's oceans would be infinitely poorer places.