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Leila Monroe’s Blog

Our Water is Shark Water

Leila Monroe

Posted August 18, 2010 in Reviving the World's Oceans

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Every time I surf in chilly Northern California waters, I am conscious that I enter a domain where fierce predators lurk.  Although it gives me pause to think of the “landlords” cruising in the depth below my feet, I also embrace the humility that comes from the reminder that, for all our technological advances and clever intellect, when it comes to sharp teeth and brute strength, humans have nothing on sharks. 

I live and surf in an area off California known affectionately as “the Red Triangle”.  These waters, stretching from north Marin to Big Sur and out to the Farallon Islands, are known for a high concentration of White Sharks that feed on the elephant seals, harbor seals, sea otters, and sea lions that call the coastline home.  Many places off the Northern California coast feature resident seal colonies and deep water just offshore -- conditions ideal for White Sharks.

As intimidating as they are, I try not to worry too much about sharks when I’m in the water.  The reality is, sharks kill fewer people every year than soda vending machines, and they have much more to fear from humans than we do from them.  This and many other interesting facts are brought to the surface in Sharkwater, set to premier on the Discovery Channel on Saturday, August 21, at 10/9c.

Sharkwater follows Rob Stewart, a marine biologist, diver, filmmaker, and conservationist who asks tough questions about the future of sharks. The film takes the viewer on a breathtaking journey into the deep blue ocean and provokes questions about why we fear, rather than respect and revere, sharks.

Sharks are 400 million year old predators that have lasted through five separate mass extinctions. The 375 species of sharks range the world over, from the frigid water to the tropics, from sea level down to miles beneath the surface, and from coastal waters out into the middle of the ocean. They are high-level predators, similar to big cats and wild dogs of Africa. This means that they help to regulate the populations of lower level predators and herbivores so the ecosystem remains in balance. One could say sharks have the pick of the litter as far as their feeding habits are concerned. Without sharks and other top-level predators like dolphins, marine life systems destabilize, throwing finely balanced cycles of life into havoc.

The bounty of the ocean belongs to the shark … at least it used to.  Sadly, since the recent dawn of industrialized fishing, the shark’s dominion of the seas has come to an end.  To satisfy the global market, new and deadly efficient fishing practices pull millions of tons of marine biomass from the ocean. Longlining is a fishing technique that uses lines several miles long, with thousands of chummed hooks, that lie along the surface of the water. This method catches fish indiscriminately, creating what is called bycatch, or species that are hard to sell commercially and often abandoned at sea.  Turtles, dolphins, sharks, seabirds including ocean-going albatross, and many other species are thrown overboard as bycatch, maimed and dying.  Sharkwater makes a strong case against longlining through footage of bycatch.

The film also reveals the secretive exploits of a billion dollar industry: shark-finning.  Asian marketplaces sell shark fins not for their taste, but for their texture.  Shark fin soup is devoured in China as a symbol of  wealth and fortune. The film looks at shark-finning as an impending disaster for the survival of sharks in this industrial age.  Stewart travels with the infamous Sea Shepherd to Costa Rica’s Cocos Island and the Galapagos investigating just how established this illegal industry is.  Sharks are nearly helpless against intense human desire to profit from their fins, which sell for $200/pound, a far higher price than even the highly endangered bluefin tuna.  Tragically, besides the fin, sharks are worth little on the Asian market, so after the fins are sliced off their bodies are thrown overboard where it can take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days for the sharks to finally drown and die.  With all this blood in the water, shark populations have recently declined by 90%.  Without a major change in human behavior, many sharks are in danger of extinction.

Sharkwater leaves its viewers with a potent message: we can change course, but without a commitment from individuals and leaders around the globe to protect sharks from destruction, future generations may only have films to help them imagine how it feels to enter the domain of our planet’s most awe inspiring predators.

White Shark and diver, William Winram.JPG

Photo credit: Fred Buyle     Diver: William Winram

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Comments

Aaron ThomasAug 19 2010 03:30 PM

Nice article.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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