When the UN declared an “ocean emergency” this week, few would have expected experts to suggest that the fate of the world rested with one of its greatest predators ― sharks.
But far from being the monster in the movies, the king of the sea can play a saviour role and could now hold one key to combatting climate change.
With rising sea levels, greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures reaching record levels last year, the race to restore the health of underwater rain forests is more urgent than ever.
Oceanographers are championing the vital role sharks play in maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem, from spreading nutrients and protecting and enhancing blue carbon, to absorbing carbon.
“Sharks are apex predators and shape every ecosystem in which they live,” Matt Gianni, of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.
“We are destroying the oceans, not just the sharks. These are marine realms of biodiversity, rain forests in the sea.”
How sharks help the oceans’ ecosystems
With seagrass meadows and kelp forests capturing carbon from the atmosphere 35 times faster than tropical rain forests, the role of these apex predators is crucial to prevent other species from overgrazing on them, thereby allowing them to flourish.
In Australia, coral reefs ― which are home to 25 per cent of all marine species and protect coastal areas ― suffered after a reduction in shark populations led to other food species eating more algae-eating fish, which led to an increase in algae, suffocating the reefs.
Not only do sharks keep the food chain balanced, some migrate thousands of kilometres, thus helping to cycle nutrients between ecosystems.
Extinction threat as more than 100 million killed annually
Sharks may hold the key to reviving our oceans, but scientists estimate that more than 100 million are being killed by the fishing industry every year and 37 per cent of species now face extinction.
In the past 50 years oceanic shark populations have declined by 71 per cent and with populations taking up to 40 years to recover, scientists say urgent action is needed to save them.
Oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle, president of Mission Blue, has spent a lifetime studying sharks and is one of their biggest advocates.
“The primary cause of shark decline is us. There is absolutely zero justification for them to be taken for food or any other reason,” she said.
“We need them for their carbon value, for the ecosystem, giving back nutrients, the cycle of life, we need them economically.
“The International Monetary Fund says whales collectively are worth an estimated $1 trillion for their contributions to carbon capture and ecotourism. If it works for whales, it has to work for sharks. They bring nutrients back and make the plankton grow and that captures carbon and creates food.
“The little Island of Palau declared that every shark in their waters is worth at least a million dollars for tourism. People will pay big bucks to go and swim with them. We do not need them dead, we need them alive for the economy, for the ecology and the ethic of caring.
“I have seen a lifetime of unprecedented loss. This is one of the most critical crises, the swift extermination of so much life, of whole ecosystems.”
Dr Guillermo Ortuno Crespo, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said urgent solutions need to be found to help the sharks.
“When mechanisms were put in place they completely forgot about sharks,” he said.
“Sharks are in real trouble and whatever we are doing so far is not working. We do not have time to wait, this is a real crisis.”
Captain Alex Cornelissen, chief executive of Sea Shepherd Global, which helps to police illegal shark fishing, believes the marine predators need a new image.
“Sharks really have an image problem. Everyone loves dolphins and whales,” he said.
“Look at Jaws, and there are still other movies out there showing sharks as monsters that want to eat you. But if you go diving with sharks it’s an amazing experience.
“If you went on safari in Africa you wouldn’t slap a lion on the back of the head, it’s the same with sharks. If you’re respectful you will be fine.
“The image of sharks is changing, but unfortunately the illegal fishing and greed is still out there and people are benefiting from the destruction of sharks and there is simply not enough control out there.
“We really need to work on better legislation. Maybe we need more Sea Shepherd vessels to stop the killing of sharks. We need to change the image of sharks and be their advocate.”
Sharks slaughtered for cosmetics
Capt Cornelissen’s team protect marine wildlife and work with local regions to provide vessels and crews to law-enforcement agencies in eight African countries.
They have shut down 79 vessels illegally fishing sharks in the past six years.
His team caught a vessel that was licensed to land tuna, but when they boarded they discovered it had a hidden shark liver oil factory.
“They were extracting the oil from sharks, whose liver makes up a third of their body, so there is a lot of oil,” he said.
“We calculated they were killing half a million sharks every year. That’s just one vessel. It makes you wonder if the figure of 100 million sharks being killed annually is correct, I guess it will be higher.
“We saved 1.35 million sharks by taking down just one vessel. Not only are the sharks swimming freely now but they are making the entire ecosystem healthier by being there. This is probably our biggest victory and highlights how important this action can be. It’s critical we have this enforcement and enforce the regulations that are put in place.”
In Turkey, conservation charity Fauna and Flora International works with local fishermen to help protect a 750 kilometre Marine Protection Area (MPA) and has hailed it as a success story for targeting illegal fishing.
“It is a real example of a country leading the way in the complete protection that is needed," said Sophie Benbow of Fauna and Flora International.
"Former Turkish fishermen are patrolling their seas.
“They have a close relationship with the coastguard, if they see illegal activity, it can be reported and they can respond. In Turkey, camera footage is now admissible in court, they have body cameras so they can tackle illegal fishing.”
Emirates and Etihad take a stand on shark-fin cargo
Many sharks are taken for their fins, oil and meat and have appeared on everything from restaurant menus to ingredient lists on lipsticks and anti-aging creams.
Campaign group Fly Without Fins is urging airlines to place a ban on transporting shark fins and major airlines, including Emirates and Etihad, have pledged not to carry the cargo.
“Our goal is to convince as many airlines as possible to ban the transportation of shark fins, that way they are showing stewardship for the oceans and sharks,” said Tina Reiterer of Sharkproject International.
“People will begin to understand the importance of sharks if huge companies do not want to transport them.”
Marine biologist Dr Kristina Boerder, of Dalhaousie University, Canada, says the EU has a “big market” for shark products and fears suppliers will find alternative routes.
Fishing industry needs to stop being secretive
Dr Boerder wants the fishing industry to stop being secretive and to more effectively monitor vessels.
“On land we can track Ubers and planes, but in the ocean we are selectively blind. We need transparency on this issue to make reasonable and sustainable decisions, we have a maritime culture of secrecy supported by gaps and loopholes in legislation,” she said.
“This really enables an unchecked exploitation of species such as sharks that are highly sensitive to fishing mortality. This lack of data and inaccessibility to it sabotages every well-meaning attempt to improve.
“I would like to see a radical transformation in how we approach this whole system, especially with how we want to contribute to the conservation of sharks.
“Vessel checking will help us better understand where fishing vessels are going, which species are being affected. It’s a great first step and needs to be combined with additional data, like countries' data on catches so we can see where the problems are.
“Secondly we need to co-operate and be transparent about things so we can better protect species with marine conservation areas. This sharing needs to happen between governments and regulatory authorities especially for species that are highly migratory, like sharks.
“The industry needs to be taken to the table and told we need to stop treating it as a secret. Other industries are more open. It needs to stop that everything is a secret when saltwater is involved. These things will set us on the right path. We know where the gaps are; we have not been incredibly good at closing them, but we can do it.”
UN calls for nations to help map 80 per cent of the seabed by 2030
UN Secretary General António Guterres said the world is facing an “ocean emergency” at the opening of the UN ocean conference and launched a call for action to map 80 per cent of the seabed by 2030.
“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency. We must turn the tide,” he said.
“Our failure to care for the ocean will have ripple effects across the entire 2030 agenda.
“I invite all to join the goal of mapping 80 per cent of the seabed by 2030. I encourage the private sector to join partnerships that support ocean research and sustainable management and I urge governments to raise their level of ambition for the recovery of ocean health.”
Rewilding can bring back ‘pollution busting carbon guzzling’ oysters
A major initiative to help the world’s marine environments to recover is rewilding ― letting nature take care of itself to restore damaged ecosystems, from helping the shark population to protecting oysters.
One of the biggest projects of its kind began in the UK last month when trawling and dredging were banned on Dogger Bank ― part of the sunken landmass 100km off England's east coast that once formed a bridge between Britain and mainland Europe.
Campaigners hope the protection of the 12,000 sq km of seabed will lead to a return to the glory days of the 1880s ― when oysters, halibut and sturgeon were in plentiful supply in the area ― and a regrowth of vital carbon-consuming sea plants.
They have reason to be optimistic, a similar project at Lyme Bay on the English south coast led to the return of four times the number of commercially valuable fish, and a fourfold increase in the overall number of species.
Charles Clover, co-founder of conservation charity the Blue Marine Foundation, says it shows healthy seas can be returned.
“Rewilding the sea is stepping back and letting nature repair the damage, or stepping in to reintroduce species. Rewilding improves food security,” he said.
“Dogger Bank has now been protected from fishing. Rewilding is actually under way as of two weeks ago. We can tackle the biodiversity emergency together without damaging the economy. There are things we can do and if we did them then oceans can be helped.
“We have to ensure all our MPAs are protected like Dogger Bank.
“In Lyme Bay, known as England’s coral gardens, we banned trawling and scallop dredging. Now, the numbers speak for themselves, there are four times more species than before.
“We are now helping oysters in the Solent. Oysters in an ecosystem attract 466 other species. They attract endangered eels and seahorses. They are pollution-busting, carbon-guzzling ecosystem engineers. All we have to do is bring them back.
“If we combine good fisheries management and carbon saving we can bring back healthy seas and make them more productive for people, for nature and for the planet. We cannot always hold back climate change, but we can enable the ocean to do its part.”
Last year in the English county of Sussex, the seabed was protected to restore ancient kelp forests, which help to take carbon from the atmosphere.
Prof Heather Koldeway, of the Zoological Society of London, said healthy islands are also a key to helping the oceans.
She highlighted the role of seabirds in creating healthy islands and says research shows that islands with lots of rats are not popular with birds.
“The birds transfer nutrients to islands and reefs,” she said.
“If we have healthy seabird islands, the fish biomass is more than 40 per cent higher than those [islands] with rats.
“The reefs are more resilient to bleaching and coral regrowth after bleaching. It is four times higher than if an island is not healthy. We cannot get back just one ocean, we have to think land-island interface. Healthy islands equal healthy reefs.”
Carl Gustaf Lundin, chief executive of ocean conservation group Mission Blue, said the world has failed, but that now is the time for change.
“There’s no excuse, we have the evidence,” he said.
“We messed it up out there. What we see these systems go through is really awful. But the good news is we can turn it around. We know what we can do, we are doing it and it is making a difference.”