Palau Bans Shark Fishing

Palau Bans Shark Fishing

This is some of the best conservation news I've heard in ages. The island nation of Palau has decided to ban shark fishing in its waters, a territory of ocean about the size of Texas.  The New York Times points out that the tiny, impoverished nation of 20,000 is going to have trouble policing the ban, but it still remains an important step in the preservation of the oceans.

Almost every nation banned whaling ages ago, and I have been waiting for shark fishing to be next on the list.  Ecologically speaking, charks are a terrible choice both for sport fishing and for commercial fishing. Sharks are an apex predator, which means that they hold a key position in the ocean's ecology.  Many shark species are both long lived and slow to breed, which means that their numbers are replenished slowly - when fishing pressures allow them to rebound, that is!  

Sharks are the wolves of the sea, both metaphorically and ecologically, and you see what kind of a fuss people kick up when a state wants to allow wolf hunting. But who speaks for the shark?  The truth is, very few conservation agencies are working to preserve the shark, despite the ongoing popularity of Discovery Channel's Shark Week.  

All it takes is one shark attack off the coast of Hawaii, and the next thing you know everyone's out in the sea armed with spear guns trying to catch "the killer."  (A preposterous idea if ever there was one - but try telling that to some people. Sharks occupy a strange space in the American mind, like the boogeyman but for grown-ups.)

As with most oceanic ecological conservation discussions, the Japanese are to blame for shark deaths far out of proportion to any other nation on the planet.  Japan continues to see the ocean as its own personal larder, and Japanese commercial fishing companies are positively ruthless.  They seem not to understand that the ocean is not, in fact, a bottomless pantry which is constantly being replenished from an unseen source.  

I know that cultural relativism ("to each his own/every opinion is valid") is considered the majority opinion these days.  But as far as I'm concerned, the Asian market's appetite for shark fin soup is simply unforgivable.  People who eat shark fin soup are aware that for the most part, the sharks are caught, their fins are cut off, and their bodies are dumped back in the ocean where they struggle to swim (limbless now) to safety, only to bleed to death.  But they don't care, these shark fin soup eaters, they just slurp up.  Seriously, this is the kind of thing that makes me despair for our species.  Not just the shark fin harvest, but the indifference of the consumers that encourages it.  After all, if everyone stopped eating shark fin soup, the shark fin fishery would end overnight.

Err, where was I?  Oh right, the ability of nations to curtail environmental destruction.  Palau is small, with only a single boat to patrol and enforce their shark protection area.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that some agency - be it Greenpeace or their more outspoken cousin the Sea Shepherd Society - will give the folks in Palau a hand. The sharks deserve it.