They are not dangerous ... they are in danger!

Ten days before World Shark Awareness Day on July 14th, a furore broke out over a Shark-Hunting Tournament planned to take place in Jupiter, Florida on July 9th. Angry, environmental activists protested and started petitions but to no avail. The tournament went ahead, with eleven bull sharks killed in a contest to see who could catch the biggest. Despite the focus on this particular event in Florida, this is not the only shark hunting tournament taking place this summer, and it will definitely not be the last as these competitions have been held along the US Atlantic coast for decades. Now critics are finally stepping up the fight and calling for a ban.

At these tournaments, competitors only land the largest sharks. Smaller ‘bycatch’ generally goes unreported, with accounts of up to 16 sharks being ‘discarded’ per boat. This ‘catch-and-release’ can be fatal to sharks, especially species such as threshers, which have a high degree of mortality after being released. With around 70 shark tournaments a year, this gives an upper estimate of around 70 000 sharks that could potentially be killed based on 100 competitors per tournament and 10 sharks killed per competitor, either through landing or mortality from discarding.

Sharks are fished recreationally and are part of fishing tournaments in many places around the world, including Australia and South Africa. It’s mainly on the East Coast of the U.S. however, where these hideous tournaments have become such highly celebrated, annual events. In most states, it is legal to hunt large marine predators for sport and shark tournaments are popular spectacles that draw large crowds and turn good profits.

With growing public awareness of the cruelty entailed in these tournaments, and outrage that this is taking place despite the vulnerable status of sharks – according to IUCN, 35.9% of the 536 assessed species of sharks are threatened with extinction – some fishing clubs now only allow catch and release. Others however, defend the practice of killing sharks, claiming it doesn’t harm the overall shark population and is part of the thrill of the show.

They also dispute that sharks are diminishing in numbers, maintaining that in fact there are too many sharks, and blaming reduced catches over the past few years on thriving, local shark populations. In the case of the recent Florida Tournament, Robert Navarro, one of the organisers, is both a sport fishing promoter and sits on NOAA’s Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel. He says he’s been calling attention to an increase in the local shark population for the past six years and insists that the tournament was necessary.

Environmentalists are pushing back however, saying people should not be misled by ‘the hype’ and that there is no scientific data to show an increase in Florida’s shark population. Rather, there is a large increase in recreational fishing with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reporting that, since Covid, one million recreational boats are now registered in the state of Florida. 

The largest shark species targeted in these tournaments are often the most endangered and the most important to the shark population, being of prime breeding age. Females also tend to be the largest individuals and it is not infrequent that pregnant females are killed. In addition, sharks have low reproductive rates, making them especially susceptible to overfishing.

In his documentary ‘Fin’, Eli Roth exposes the global shark slaughter, with 11 000 sharks killed around the world every hour. All the evidence indicates that shark populations are crashing, with a ‘very small window’ to avert disaster. According to the first global assessment of its kind published in the journal Nature in September 2021, oceanic sharks and rays have declined by 71 percent since 1970 mainly because of overfishing. The collapse is probably even more stark than this study shows due to incomplete data from some of the worst-hit regions and because fishing fleets were already expanding in the decades before starting the analysis.

Shark tournaments encourage a mindset of human dominance over nature, with a lack of respect for life and protection of limited natural resources. They are no different or less abhorrent than any kind of trophy hunting. This is NOT fishing at a subsistence level as many people around the world do for their daily survival. This is torturing and killing animals for fun – these tournaments glorify and celebrate the massacre of a magnificent and endangered species that plays a vital role in the ecology of the oceans.

What activists on the frontlines have to say

“When we go do the shark diving on our boats, we only see about six or seven sharks. That’s it …  the problem isn’t more sharks in the ocean, it’s more boats. On any given day, you will have over 50 boats fishing in the area.” – Luis Roman, owner of Calypso Dive Charters.  

“The reason it’s more pronounced right now is because we have less fish. Fish populations are declining all over the world because of our consumptive habits … don’t blame the sharks. They’re the ones keeping our oceans healthy and balanced by removing the dead, the dying, and the diseased. Instead, blame the global overfishing of our oceans.” – Shark expert, Jim Abernathy

“When we started campaigning against this we were vilified but we now have lots of people telling fishermen that it is time to stop. They harvest the biggest sharks, which harms the breeding population. They also prey upon the negative reputation of sharks and often encourage people to kill them.” – Dr John Grandy. Humane Society

“I think it is sending the very worst message to our children, to the world, when we are hunting threatened species. We need to move away from a world where we fear sharks to a world where we fear a world without sharks.” – Lewis Pugh, UNEP Patron of the Oceans

“At present, our planet is under a multitude of human-caused threats. Climate change, deforestation, overfishing, biodiversity loss and pollution all have a common cause, which stems from an economic and political system which treats the planet’s natural resources as either an unlimited all-you-can-eat buffet, or a drain in which we can continuously pour our waste. To address these environmental issues, we need to learn to respect nature and fishing sharks for prize money is the absolute antithesis of respect for nature …

If we are to overcome the multitude of environmental threats that are urgently facing humankind, we need a major change in attitude, from exploiting nature as we see fit, to living as a harmonious part of nature. While shark fishing tournaments do target endangered species and will have negative effects on marine ecosystems, it is important to remember this is not an argument solely about numbers killed or ‘sustainability’ of the shark populations, but about the greater environmental consequences of the messages it conveys.” Rick Stafford | Professor of Marine biology Bournemouth University | The wider conservation implications of shark fishing tournaments

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