Will sharks finally receive the required level of protection?

Guest commentary by Captain Alex Cornelissen, Director of Sea Shepherd Galapagos

Guest commentary Alex CornelissenLast year at the General Assembly of the United Nations, Honduras, and the Micronesian island of Palau signed a joint declaration that prohibited commercial fishing of sharks in its waters. This declaration shows great vision from these two nations that both heavily depend on dive tourism. Now, Honduras has shown even greater vision by signing this sanctuary bill into law, a move that will effectively turn the entire Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) of Honduras into a permanent sanctuary. The EEZ extends 200 nautical miles (NM) off the coast of both the Pacific as well as the Caribbean side of Honduras, an area over 92,000 NM.

Are we finally seeing a shift in policy when it comes to shark conservation? I certainly hope so, as many species of sharks face extinction within the next decade if nothing is done to halt the ongoing massacre that takes place in our world’s oceans for the non-relenting demand for shark fin soup. It is estimated that between 74 and 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins alone. Due to the slow reproduction rate, small number of offspring, and late sexual maturity sharks face, these factors far exceed the capability of sharks to recover. Understandably, shark populations are spiraling ever steeper towards extinction.

Even though the reason for creating a sanctuary is purely economical, dive tourism might prove to be our strongest ally in our conservation efforts. Of course sharks should receive our full protection due to their invaluable and irreplaceable position in the oceans, but at least for now we are starting to realize that sharks are more important alive than dead, from an economical point of view.

A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia put a huge value on individual sharks (up to 2 million during its lifetime) in relation to dive tourism in Palau. If only we could use this value as damages to be paid in court cases against illegal fishermen, think of what a powerful deterrent it would be.

There is a growing momentum in favor of sharks. Even though most countries still focus on a resource sustainable policy, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believes what we really need are full species protection measures like those shown by Honduras. But progress is made even though the level of protection is not yet where it needs to be. Several members of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures (APIL) including Palau, Hawaii, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam adopted protective legislation that prohibits the possession, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distribution of shark fins. APIL’s general assembly requested their remaining members to adopt similar legislation for a unified regional ban.

APIL is comprised of the following nations: the Northern Marianas, Guam, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, American Samoa, Nauru and Hawaii.

At the same time, the US Pacific West Coast states including Oregon, California, and Washington have all passed bills that ban the trade and distribution of shark fins.

In Fiji, the ministry of fisheries is drafting a legislation to ban the trade of shark meat. In part of Colombia, all shark fishing has been banned and in Mexico, a ban was implemented that prohibits the fishing of all shark species in federal waters on both coasts between May and August of each year.

When it comes to protecting the world’s oceans in general, we are still a long ways away from the goal set almost a decade ago. In 2002, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development made a commitment to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2012. With a few mere months to go, estimates are that only between one and two percent are now actually protected at some level, and only about 0.1 percent are classified as “no-take” zones.

We can only hope that shark protective measures will increase further and faster if we want to save these apex predators from going extinct.

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