Sharks are at risk

The tragic death of Rolly Lesperance, apparently resulting from a shark attack, has shocked the nation. Despite rumors of foul play or other allegations, the incident has awoken a primal fear of shark attacks in many people. But the truth is that sharks are at risk and not us.

Shark jaws for sale in Victoria Market, Mahe © Jeff Watson

Sharks arose about 350 million years ago, have remained almost unchanged for the past 70 million years and still comprise a dominant group. Sharks almost never get infections, cancers or circulatory diseases. They can heal and recover from severe injuries.

Unfortunately, sharks are very vulnerable to fishing pressure because they are slow to mature. Each female only produces enough young to replace the population under low, natural levels of mortality. They cannot adapt by producing larger numbers of young to replace the huge quantities now being killed by man.

Fisheries that target sharks have resulted in serious population declines. The growth in many of these fisheries has been driven, at least in part, by the huge demand in international trade for shark products, particularly for fins to supply the East Asian shark fin soup market.
Sharks are also all too often captured in what is known as bycatch. In Seychelles for example, this is in tuna fisheries. Overall, it has been estimated that some 100 million sharks have been taken annually from the oceans of the world in recent years. Most of these are landed from multi-species fisheries or taken as bycatch, rather than caught by fisheries specifically targeting sharks.

Unregulated and illegal fishing is playing a part in the great purge of sharks from the world’s oceans. While oversized drift gill-nets are illegal, and regional fisheries organizations like the Indian Ocean Tuna Organization have taken measures to protect shark populations, enforcement is very difficult resulting in widespread poaching. It is now acknowledged that some shark species are actually threatened with extinction.

Unfortunately, sharks are not very convincing candidates for conservation because of their fierce appearance. In actual fact, only a tiny minority of sharks is known to attack man. Most sharks, unbelievable as it may sound, are harmless to people. There are only about 50 to 75 known shark attacks world-wide a year, and very few of these are fatal. In Seychelles shark attacks are so rare that even older fishermen cannot relate “shark bites man” stories.

Sharks should be protected for many reasons. Sharks are among the most important 'keystone' marine species. This means they have a very important role in maintaining the resilience of the marine environment. For example, they can regulate the balance between different fish species - when large sharks are removed, other commercially-important fish populations may be out-competed by less valuable fish which were formerly eaten by the sharks.

By Nirmal Shah, published on the People Newspaper on 18th August 2005

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