Ask a nature enthusiast to tally up some of Hawaii’s most alluring features, and the opportunity to see marine life up close likely ranks high on the list. Tourists flock to visit the sea turtles nesting on the shores of Oahu’s Laniakea Beach and to view the humpbacks off Maui’s Papawai Point.
Perhaps less renowned, and often misunderstood, are the sharks. Hawaii has 40 species passing through its waters, making it a biodiversity hot spot for these beleaguered fish, 31 percent of which (together with their cousins, the rays), are threatened with extinction. Though many people fear sharks, in spite of how rare attacks are, opportunities abound for more adventurous ecotourists to see these majestic predators up close. The Aloha State offers myriad scuba diving trips to sites where sharks and manta rays are common visitors, and plenty of exclusive shark-diving trips.
The animals command respect among local fishermen and dive boat operators. Honokohau Harbor on the Big Island serves as a foraging ground for a number of tiger sharks, and many are so well known they have been given names. When Laverne the shark, for example, was hooked and harassed by some young men and hauled ashore, locals began demanding more protections.
When these top predators are lost, there are ecosystem impacts far beyond their home ranges—“cascading effects that are amplified the further down the [food] chain you proceed,” says Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
That’s part of the reason Hawaii state lawmakers are pressing forward with a bill that looks to ban shark fishing, an activity that represents the primary threat to sharks worldwide. The widely supported and first-of-its-kind legislation, which passed the House and Senate, would take effect on July 1 once lawmakers finalize it. The bill, which follows the state’s 2010 adoption of a ban prohibiting the possession, sale, trade, or distribution of shark fins, would apply to all shark species and make killing, capturing, or hurting any variety of shark or ray a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines starting at $500 and going up to $10,000 for a third offense.
“We included exemptions so that native Hawaiians could continue their cultural practices and so scientists could work with sharks for research purposes,” says Nicole Lowen, the Hawaii state legislator who introduced the bill and represents District 6 on the Big Island. (Traditional gathering of food resources by native Hawaiians is protected under state law.) There’s also an exception for self-defense—although in the past five years, only a few dozen shark incidents have been recorded in local waters. “We’re not trying to stop people from doing reasonable things, but to stop senseless killing,” Lowen says.
Elizabeth Murdock, director of NRDC’s Pacific Ocean Initiative, agrees that Hawaii's new legislation would be a boon for sharks. “By banning shark fishing, Hawaii is effectively creating a shark sanctuary in its state waters, a really important way to protect these important ocean predators,” she says. “Overfishing is the biggest threat to sharks and rays worldwide, particularly when practiced by commercial fishing operators targeting open-ocean sharks like hammerheads, which are popular in the fin trade.”
Sharks caught accidentally in tuna fisheries were previously considered to be of low value and were often released alive; now commercial fishing fleets target them outright because of the high value of their fins—which can command hundreds of dollars per kilogram—and, increasingly, their meat. In fact, captains on open-ocean fishing vessels sometimes pay their crew in shark fins, Murdock notes. Sharks are also caught for their teeth and oil, and rays are caught for their gill plates, often promoted as a tonic.
Demand for shark fins is driven largely by the popularity of shark-fin soup. The dish was once popular with Chinese emperors going back to the Song dynasty (960–1276), but today the country’s growing middle class—and Chinese people living elsewhere, including the United States—continue the tradition of eating the soup at banquets and other festive events. Within China, a ban on shark-fin soup at government functions has reduced consumption somewhat, as have celebrity campaigns (the most well known by basketball star Yao Ming), but many shark species are still in decline.
The Wildlife Conservation Society notes that total reported capture for sharks, skates, and rays is in the hundreds of thousands of metric tons (with an additional and significant unreported catch); a 2013 study in the journal Marine Policy estimated that around 100 million sharks were caught every year by commercial fisheries. For some species in a particularly slow-maturing family of fishes, the issue has reached a crisis level. In response, 12 U.S. states currently have shark fin trade bans, with Texas the latest to outlaw the sale or transport of them, and dozens of countries and the European Union have also banned both the practice of shark finning and the resulting product. These bans are “very direct ways to dampen the trade and remove some of the demand that is contributing to shark overfishing,” Murdock says.
But a shark fishing ban may have more impact. Still, Naylor cautions that a ban is only as good as its enforcement—any ban protecting sharks needs to have teeth. Moreover, oversight doesn’t come cheap: “It takes a lot of resources to enforce fishing bans on the open ocean,” he says.
Some international fishery bodies have put in place more modest shark conservation measures, which usually include finning bans as well as catch limits, the creation of marine protected areas, or bans on fishing certain species, like oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerheads, or manta rays. But confirming whether a shark was caught within or outside of a conservation area and monitoring the species of every captured shark pose significant challenges. “Across much of the globe, shark fisheries and trade are poorly reported and regulated,” Murdock says.
Nevertheless, many nations, particularly those with robust tourism industries, have found that adopting stricter regulations has been a boon to their economies. Palau was the first country in the world to ban shark fishing, acknowledging that in its waters, a living shark is more valuable than a dead one. That’s not just taking into account the value of a healthy ecosystem with a variety of top predators. Shark-diving excursions are a growing draw as people gain a better understanding of these animals and want to see them in a safe setting. In Palau, that activity provides over $1 million in salaries to local dive leaders and generates $1.5 million in taxes for the government. Honduras, the Maldives, and the Bahamas have all banned shark fishing in their national waters for similar reasons. In the Bahamas, shark diving brings in over $100 million annually, and the Pew Environment Group estimated that each reef shark brought $250,000 to the island chain’s economy.
Of course, state-level bans are more limited in their impact. A Hawaii shark-fishing ban would apply only to territory that belongs to the state, not federal waters. “Species of sharks that are residents of the Hawaiian chain stand to benefit the most” from the proposed bill, Naylor says. And given that sharks tend to range over large areas, moving in and out of protected zones without an understanding of geographical borders, “the very same animals could well be heavily fished when they are away from Hawaii,” he points out. But some of the more oceanic sharks have nurseries closer to land, and the law would help protect those species.
Conservationists hope that Hawaii’s new law could set an example for other shark (and ecotourism) hot spots to follow. Murdock calls it a “best practice.” If adopted widely, she adds, it could help to turn the tide for populations of the beleaguered big fish the world over.
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