Jaws of Disaster | Why a Declining Population Is The Most Terrifying Thing About Sharks
Overfishing, lack of protection and a lucrative market for their fins has led to a 71% decrease in ocean shark populations since 1970. We join a Cornish shark fisherman on his charter boat to get up-close and personal with the godfather of the deep to explore what’s happening…
Featured Image Credit: Tom Young
Penzance harbour is slowly stirring on a misty Tuesday morning, with not only the sound of seagulls piercing through the heavy wet air. I’m not sure there’s ever an ideal time to inhale a noseful of mashed-up fish guts, but it’s absolutely not 6am.
“The chum? It’s a mix of minced-up fresh fish, ground bran, and a secret mix of fish oils.”
“I’m not sure there’s ever an ideal time to inhale a noseful of mashed-up fish guts, but it’s absolutely not 6am”
Revealing part of the closely guarded blend that’ll soon be chucked into a mesh bag and dangled off the side of his boat is Kieren, a locally renowned charter boat skipper who’s preparing to take us miles out to sea in the hope of coming face-to-face with the apex predator we’ve hopped aboard his vessel to meet. One tempted to us by his smelly concoction of “chum” that looks distressingly like last night’s chilli.
“We’ve got ideal fishing conditions today,” he tells us as we motor out of the harbour whilst the sun finally rises towards The Lizard, the most south-westerly point of the British mainland. “But not ideal weather for our sharks. It’s a bit warm – they’ll be feeling a little lethargic.”
I’ve joined a trip with a group of pals who’ve made the journey down from Liverpool, on a tip from a friend whose praise for the 26-year-old shark fisherman Kieren’s trips was too great to ignore. And it’s praise that’s hard-earned. He’s respected for life-long fishing escapades that have seen him working Cornish fishing boats since his early teens, land a 99lb 14oz Blue Shark at the age of 13 – a UK Junior Record at the time – and hook into 830 sharks so far this season. It’s also the reason his charters sell out like pop band tour dates – he’s booked up until the end of 2022, the full year allocated to customers in just five days.
More recently, as ocean environmentalism and animal welfare become a greater priority for Kieren’s paying guests, people are also coming to him for the caring and considered way he handles these cold-blooded hunting machines when they surface on the end of his floats and lines.
“People are also coming to him for the caring and considered way he handles these cold-blooded hunting machines when they surface on the end of his floats and lines”
It’s this respectful manner that springs into action a little over an hour into our first drift, as one of the four floats – a DIY rig made from a fluorescent Mountain Dew bottle – plummets under the surface, and a loud “We’re on!” from one of the Liverpool lads marks the start of a 10-minute duel through the calm water’s surface. Reels creak and scream, rods bend and backs strain, before our torpedo-shaped visitor looms up from the dark.
Like a member of an F1 pit crew, Kieren leaps over the side of his boat armed with only a T-bar tool and pair of labourer’s gloves to whip the surprisingly small barbless hook from the corner of the shark’s mouth in one swift expert movement. Quickly, the fish slashes its tail to retreat beneath the thick blanket of darkness beneath the boat.
Seeing this perfectly-formed prehistoric machine glide back into its habitat, a calm celebratory mood comes over the successful crew – one a lot like gazing into a recently lit roaring campfire. The pressure is off. We’ve met who we’ve come to see. But there’s no denying that the nine other Blues we’re visited by through the 11-hour day – all released with the same forensic yet relaxed methods – feel equally as special.
An average of one shark an hour for us, and a season’s catch rate of 20 per day, may give the impression that our oceans are stuffed with sharks, all lining up for a bite of Kieren’s bait. But the reality couldn’t be more different. And it couldn’t be more dire.
This year, data from a team at Canada’s Simon Fraser University and the International Union for Conservation revealed that global populations of oceanic shark and rays have declined by 71% in the last fifty years – a rate that, if kept at the same speed, would lead to loss of entire species in just two decades.
“Global populations of oceanic shark and rays have declined by 71% in the last fifty years”
“The reality is that some species have declined by 90%,” Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird, marine biologist, broadcaster and The Shark Trust UK ambassador tells me a few days after my feet are back on dry land. “In fact, some hypotheses state that the Oceanic White Tip has declined by 99%. It’s a precipitous drop that just isn’t getting the same headlines as, say, pandas dying in China. Sharks – the wardens of our oceans – are critical. They really are on life support.”
It’s a population destruction of cataclysmic proportions, with 143 species of shark now listed as ‘Under Threat’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And it’s a morbidly impressive dent given the microscopic timeframe the decline occupies in the shark’s legacy, which has seen them patrolling the Earth’s oceans for more than 400 million years. How the hell have we managed it?
“Unregulated overfishing coupled with corrupt and ineffective policy around the world,” says Tom, bluntly. It’s a statement that’s hard to argue with – targeted for their fins, meat, liver oil and more valuable ‘parts’ resulted in approximations as high as 273 million sharks being pulled from the sea and killed in the early 2000s. “Many sharks make vast migrations every year – the Blue Shark swims across the Atlantic to feed in the UK, for example – so, realistically, although we can control what happens to sharks in our waters, we’re helpless when it comes to what happens to them further afield.”
Announced in August 2021, the UK is soon to bolster its reputation as a global leader in marine protection by becoming the first European nation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins and those products which contain them. It’s a move that’ll undoubtedly benefit global stock of the UK resident Blue Shark, the top species impacted by ‘finning’ – the practice of cutting the fin off at sea and throwing the helpless body back into the water to die slowly, and one that is already illegal in our home waters (despite gaping loopholes being exploited by foreign vessels). But it’s hard to think the difference will be anything but negligible, given that it’s a species protected by just a handful of national catch limits around the world.
“The UK is soon to bolster its reputation as a global leader in marine protection by becoming the first European nation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins”
“Sharks live long and breed late, often with small litters,” Tom says, when I ask why shark populations are finding it difficult to bounce back. “Take the Great White. A big female might not be ready to have a litter until she’s 20 years old, and even then, she’ll produce two pups, perhaps more. Then again, there is just so much we don’t know about these sharks and their birthing patterns. We’ve never seen them birth, and we don’t even know where they go to do it.”
It’s a fight that is no doubt engaging to read about – another chapter of schadenfreude in the story of our destructive attitude towards our planet. But with the main antagonists making bloody waves on the other side of the planet and the protagonists hidden deep underwater, you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Yeah? So what? I live in the UK. This isn’t my problem?”.
Unfortunately for you, it is.
“If we don’t make widespread change in the next fifty to one-hundred years, we won’t see the end of sharks, sharks will see the end of us,” Tom prophesises. “Remember, we’re the Blue Planet. Oceans create 50-80% of the oxygen we breathe and it’s phytoplankton – microscopic marine algae – that turns carbon dioxide into oxygen. If overfishing continues and shark numbers dip low enough, we can anticipate an unfathomable boom in the population of jellyfish right around the world’s oceans, which would uncontrollably ravage the levels of phytoplankton they feed on.
“Not only do sharks predate on jellyfish, but they regulate the health of other fish that predate jellyfish also – if weak and sick fish aren’t picked off then disease creeps into that species, and science has shown that the populations drop far lower than with regulating predators in the picture. And when both the sharks and the jellyfish-eating fish are removed, we’re looking at huge problems – global food and water shortages that would inevitably lead to war.”
“It’s a premonition that seems almost too sci-fi to believe – spineless lumps of leggy goo the ultimate downfall of humanity”
It’s a premonition that seems almost too sci-fi to believe – spineless lumps of leggy goo the ultimate downfall of humanity. But if you were part of the record numbers of staycationers in Cornwall this summer, there’s a strong probability that you’ll have noticed how Compass Jellyfish are now as much a staple feature of the Great British Summer Holiday as ice cream and sand in your sandwiches. Even steaming out of Penzance harbour with Kieren, we plow through huge blooms of them – more than our skipper has ever seen before, he tells us.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Tom adds after his depressing predictions. “I would love to pull the cord and drop the bomb and say ‘There’s no way back! It’s FUBAR!’. But as scientists, we have to be careful, we have to be accurate. Yes, shark populations are critical, but humanity must take its foot off their throat. We can heal the hole. It has to come from us.”
“The protection has led to 25-times more sharks inside the reserve than immediately outside it. This is the story of how sharks can bounce back”
Places like Misool Eco Resort are an example of that healing. Situated in the far-flung south of Indonesia – one of the world’s biggest players in the export of shark fins – it’s a diving and conservation area built on a former finning camp that has transformed 300,000 acres into a protected marine reserve where finning, harvesting of turtle eggs, and the (absolutely insane-sounding) practice of cyanide fishing is banned, leading it to become one of only a few places on the planet where the quality of reef is improving year on year.
“It gives me hope,” says dive instructor and conservationist Jo Marlow, who has worked with the Misool Foundation for six years now. “There are now multiple shark nurseries all around Misool. Reports show that the protection has led to 25-times more sharks inside the reserve than immediately outside it. This is the story of how sharks can bounce back.”
Back on the boat as we head homeward after 11 hours of bobbing about on the sea, I ask Kieren, perhaps with a small pang of guilt, how what we’re doing is in anyway playing a role in the protection of sharks and our oceans.
“I get asked that question a lot on the boat these days,” he says. “It’s a real subject in the angling community. Ask any fisherman and he or she will agree that fishing ‘is not what it used to be’. I am a fisherman first and foremost, but I’m a fisherman that’s trying to influence and encourage in the right responsible direction. We’ve got to learn from the greed and impact of previous generations, because down here we’re not totally guilt-free. Forty years ago, it was common for sharks to be caught in Cornwall and hung up on the pier as a trophy. But over time, a decrease in numbers – helped by our overfishing of Cornish sardines – saw a movement towards catch and release.
“Fundamentally, it’s a form of employment that will rely on healthy shark numbers and help to make them more valuable alive than dead”
“Now, things are thriving. A few years ago, a regular season would see 300 sharks, but now the best season is up to 1800. Not only are we strictly catch and release, and keep the shark in the water at all times now, but all the sharks we catch today, and that I’ve seen through the season, will be recorded, along with the individual locations where we saw and released them. I’ll calculate a rough size for each, and as we’ve done for many years, will pass on that data to the Pat Smith Database – the biggest dataset for shark captures in Europe, and the second biggest in the world.”
“When it’s done correctly and with respect, it’s brilliant,” Tom reiterates to me later. “Currently fishing with a line and hook is the only way scientists can get close enough to study sharks. There’s no escaping the fact that they do feel pain and will register the experience, but that’s more reason to release it correctly, professionally and with respect. It’s a great way to educate through citizen science too, and fundamentally, it’s a form of employment that will rely on healthy shark numbers and help to make them more valuable alive than dead.”
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