Sharks are essential to marine ecosystems but millions of them are being killed every year across the globe. But now the state of Hawaii is aiming to fight back and fully protect their sharks with ground breaking legislation.
Hawaii has become the first state in the US to put forward legislation to fully protect all species of shark in their waters in what is being described as a huge win for their conservation. If passed it will become illegal to kill any shark or ray in Hawaii and will result in heavy fines. The move is intended to save all threatened species of shark but also to protect the marine ecosystems in Hawaii that rely heavily on sharks to stay healthy. It could also save their economy millions of dollars in the future which they would lose if populations collapsed. It is a positive step in the right protection for US shark protection and if rolled out nationwide the effects could be felt around the world.
Threats to sharks
Worldwide it is believed that as many as 100 million sharks and rays are killed every year which is putting huge pressures on their population levels. The demand is mainly driven by the high value of their products in the luxury seafood trade in East Asia. Dishes like shark fin soup are considered a delicacy in China and other parts of Asia and often result in the removal of shark’s fins before being dumped back in the ocean to die. Similarly the gill rakers of manta rays and other mobulids are harvested for ‘traditional medicine’ in the same countries, often without any regulation. These issues are made worse by negative attitudes towards sharks fuelled by misrepresentation in mainstream media. Unfortunately a lot of species of sharks and rays are now threatened as a result and if things don’t change soon it could mean a massive shift in the health of marine ecosystems.
Senate Bill 489
The new law proposed by Hawaii in the affectionately named ‘Senate Bill 489’ proposes a complete ban on the killing and harvesting of any species of shark and ray in Hawaiian waters. Breaking the new law would result in fines which would increase with repeated offences from $500 for the first offence to $10,000 for the third. Repeated offences past that point could result in jail time although it is unlikely it should ever come to that. This bill continues Hawaii’s tradition of being a leader in shark conservation as they were also the first US state to ban the sale of shark fin products. There are some exceptions to the new law for research purposes and public safety but neither are unfair or unreasonable. The law would provide almost complete protection for sharks and rays which is not something that is in place in many other places in the world. Lawmakers in Honolulu submitted the bill on 6th Feb with a decision on whether or not it will go through expected as soon as next month.
Apart from protecting these misunderstood and majestic creatures the bill has also been introduced to protect Hawaiian marine ecosystems that rely heavily on the apex predators. In particular coral reefs which rely heavily on sharks to maintain order and balance among the many different species that live there. Sharks are one of the main selection pressures for animals on reefs, weak and sick individuals are most likely to be picked off by them, which allows natural selection to take place. They also control the abundance of everything below them in the food chain, if those abundances change it can mean a trophic cascade that will be extremely damaging. This is known as top down control (see below). In a way sharks act sort of like the immune system of marine habitats keeping them healthy and properly functioning.
Example of a trophic cascade= less sharks means more predatory fish (i.e. barracuda) -> more predatory fish means less herbivorous (i.e. parrotfish) -> less herbivorous fish means more algae -> more algae leads to coral bleaching, as corals are outcompeted (i.e. they get less sunlight) -> finally coral bleaching leads to complete ecosystem collapse and most animals on the reef could die off.
It’s also not just the marine ecosystems that benefit from staying healthy, the people living in the surrounding communities also benefit. For a place like Hawaii those benefits are twofold. Firstly Hawaii relies heavily on its coral reefs and megafauna for ecotourism. Millions of people visit Hawaii to scuba dive on reefs or with sharks every year and it is a big part of their economy. No sharks would mean a serious reduction in the number of people that would visit the island paradise, even if tourists might be unnecessarily worried about getting attacked by one. Secondly the islands fishing community would take a serious hit. As we’ve already seen sharks control the abundances of everything below them and keep reefs healthy. Bleached reefs or a decrease in a target species abundance would drastically reduce the catch rates of local fishermen whose livelihoods depend on it. So even if people can’t see it by protecting sharks they are ensuring their own financial futures.
Naturally with any new legislation there are people who do not agree with what the bill proposes. Some local people are scared that an increase in shark numbers caused by their protection will result in a subsequent increase in the number of shark attacks in Hawaii. It is easy to understand people’s concerns, especially due to the negative portrayal of sharks in mainstream media, but it is a common misconception. Hawaii has around 1.3 million residents and last year 9 million tourists visited the islands on holiday. Of those 10 million+ people last year three were involved in a shark attack and only one sustained serious injury, but still survived. Yet sharks are still wrongly stereotyped as dangerous and aggressive by most people. The truth is that people only get attacked by sharks if they get too close or are irresponsible in the water. At the end of the day why should sharks have to suffer just so tourists can have a quick swim with piece of mind?
USA: United Shark Alliance?
The USA does not have a great track record with protecting shark species. But if more states follow Hawaii’s example and bring in similar bans it is likely to have a massive impact. With the Pacific to the West and Atlantic and Caribbean to the East, America is quite literally in the middle of the shark conservation debate. Total protection against the killing of sharks along the entirety of the US coastline would be a massive benefit, not just to shark populations around the world but also coral reef ecosystems. But the time to act is now, not in ten years, not once things have gone worse, today. Sharks are very long lived and it takes time for their populations to recover, the sooner we act the better their chances of survival. Global stressors like rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification already forever changing marine habitats and sharks may just be one of our best chances of protecting them.