Oceana’s blog about the latest ocean news, policy and science.
There’s a new estimate for how many sharks are killed each year by fishermen worldwide and the news is grim. Despite growing awareness of the threat sharks face and legislative efforts around the globe to stem the unsustainable harvest of sharks, a new study published this week in Marine Policy puts the number slaughtered each year at 100 million sharks, or three sharks caught per second.
Due to the incomplete nature of the data for shark catches, that number could be as low as 63 million or as high as 273 million, but both the high and low end estimates are outside of safe biological limits. According to the study’s authors, this number represents approximately 7% of all sharks in the ocean. On average, shark populations can grow at a maximum rate of 5% per year. As can be seen, shark populations cannot grow fast enough to sustain this enormous removal each year, which is why sharks numbers have declined so dramatically in recent years.
The primary culprit for this staggering level of exploitation remains the same: overfishing and bycatch, driven by the unabated demand for shark fin soup, the consumption of which is seen as a status symbol in China. The fin itself is a largely flavorless component of the soup and provides no additional nutritional value.
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing due to their slow growth, late maturation and small litters, with biological life histories that more closely resemble large mammals than other fish. Some sharks, like the Atlantic Ocean's dusky shark, do not mature until as late as 21 years of age and give birth to as few as three pups every three years.
Oceana is fighting to protect sharks around the world. Learn more about what we do.
One of the tricks of paleontology is figuring out how all those fossils fit together to form a whole animal.
The placement of the puzzle pieces wasn’t so clear with the bewildering spiral jaw of one 270 million year old “ghost shark.” Scientists have known since 1899 that the six-meter long shark-like Helicoprion (which means “spiral saw”) had a whorl of fused teeth somewhere in its makeup. But the original discovery of this mysterious body part found it detached from the rest of the animal’s body, with no good indication of its location.
The Russian geologist who unearthed this first fossil theorized that it was a weapon curling up out of the Helicoprion’s mouth, like a sawfish’s saw that had spiraled upwards. Others thought it was the lower jaw, curled below the giant fish’s chin. Still others couldn’t imagine having such a monstrosity for a face, and guessed that it was located somewhere along the shark’s back—perhaps growing from its dorsal fin—or on its tail.
Less than a decade after the initial fossil was discovered, an American found an intact fossil of the toothy spiral in the creature’s mouth. But this did not settle the controversy over its attachment to the upper or lower jaw or its position inside or outside of the mouth.
In an apparent guerilla stunt, a wildlife sculpture in downtown Vancouver has been "caught" in a giant plastic 6-pack ring. The sculpture, located at the corner of Georgia and Thurlow Streets, depicts two dolphins, whose necks are now caught in the giant plastic rings marked with the "PlasticPollutionCoalition.org" web address.
This stunt is a large-scale reminder of the dangers of litter, particularly plastics, in our ocean. Approximately 75-80 million tons of plastics are used every year to produce the world's food packaging alone, and a large proportion of these plastics inevitably end up in our oceans. Almost 80% of the garbage found in the ocean comes from land-based sources, with the majority being packaging and food containers like the ubiquitous 6-pack ring featured in this guerilla demonstration. This garbage kills sea creatures by strangling them, drowning them through entanglement, or even starving them through malnutrition when ingested debris in the creatures' stomachs prevents them from getting the food and nutrients that they require.
It’s official; as of today, California’s great white sharks are now fully protected under the California Endangered Species Act! As new candidates for protection under this law, while the state of California considers permanent actions, the ocean’s most iconic sharks will now receive the exact same legal protections afforded to other listed endangered species, placing them in the company of the furry sea otter and the majestic blue whale. As of today, it is now a criminal offense to pursue, catch, or kill a white shark in California. With recent population estimates of fewer than 350 adult white sharks, this action may be just in time to keep them from extinction.
The main threat to great whites is incidental capture in drift and set gillnets which together target swordfish, thresher sharks, halibut, and white seabass. Since the 1980s there has been an average of over 10 reported interactions of great white sharks in these gillnets annually, and up to 30 reports in a single year. The number of observers who go out to sea on these fishing vessels and document bycatch is currently very low, so we don’t know the full extent of this bycatch. Also of concern is what scientists call post-release mortality. While some great whites are released from gillnet capture alive, others die shortly after from severe damage inflicted to their organs and internal bleeding. Bycatch in fisheries, under-reporting, and post-release mortality, in culmination with a low population size, slow growth, and a low reproductive rate could be enough to jeopardize the recovery of the unique population of great white sharks off California.
Earlier this month Oceana and National Geographic launched an expedition to document the marine life and habitat of the waters of the remote and unexplored Desventuradas Islands more than 500 miles off the coast of Chile. Below is an expedition journal entry from Oceana South America Vice President Alex Munoz.
As the DeepSee submarine is towed towards the surface with us inside, in search of the beauty of the deep, through the 10 cm thick acrylic sphere I see Eric pass by in another boat to pick up the drop cameras, thousands of feet underwater. A third boat took the group of Chilean and foreign scientists to the other side of San Ambrosio to follow up on biological data on the most exposed and difficult side of this island. Manu and Eduardo, the underwater photographers, are underwater for a while taking photos with great skill and patience. Each of these actions is prepared, begins and ends with a fluid choreography from the ARGO, the best diving and research platform that we could imagine.
Every day I see the extraordinary display of knowledge, talent, and technology operating simultaneously and I wonder, “How much is this expedition worth for Chile ?” I leave the question open as we begin to descend.
I have some terrific news to report: Shell announced yesterday that it will suspend attempts to drill for oil in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
This announcement comes as a huge relief after Shell’s dangerous string of mishaps in the Arctic in the past year. In late December, the company’s drill rig, the Kulluk, broke away from its tow vessel in rough seas, and ran aground on New Year’s Eve off of Kodiak Island in an area that is home to endangered Steller sea lions, threatened southwest sea otters, and salmon.
Fortunately, the Coast Guard was able to rescue the crew of the Kulluk, and salvage crews were able to pull the vessel off the rocks without significant ecological harm. But the Kulluk incident capped off a year of missteps, and made it clear that Shell is not prepared to drill in the Arctic.
As Oceana’s Mike LeVine points out, “Shell currently faces two disabled vessels, two pending Coast Guard investigations, two notices of violation of the Clean Air Act, and an ongoing ‘assessment’ by the Department of the Interior. Fundamentally, both the company and the government agencies charged with making decisions about our ocean resources are faced with a crisis of confidence. The decisions to allow Shell to operate in the Arctic Ocean clearly were premature.”
This week, the civil trial began in New Orleans against BP and its partners in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. During the opening statements, an attorney for the Justice Department said, "The evidence will show that BP put profits above people, profits before safety and profits before the environment.”
The attorney’s statement could easily describe Shell’s behavior in 2012, except that the company was forced, by its own failures, to stop before real disaster struck. We are extremely lucky to have avoided catastrophe considering the unforgiving conditions in Alaskan waters and the impossibility of cleaning up a spill.
Kudos to Oceana’s team and our allies in Alaska for their persistent campaign work to achieve this victory.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
On February 8, Oceana and National Geographic launched an expedition to explore the waters off of the remote Desventuradas Islands more than 500 miles off the coast of Chile. By documenting marine life and habitat the team hopes to persuade the Chilean government to protect more than 60,000 miles surroundinig this archipelago. Below is an expedition journal entry from Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Click here to view all Desventuradas Expedition blog posts on National Geographic's Explorers Journal.
19 February 2013
When we think of predators, our minds often picture large animals with sharp teeth and scary faces, animals that have evolved just to kill humans. Our collective memory makes us fearful of the night, and almost everyone has been startled by unknown noises in a dark forest. This fear has been engraved in our collective unconscious like carvings in a rock. When it comes to the ocean, many people still fear sharks (despite repeated evidence that sharks are the ones who should be scared of us) or deep alien creatures that hide in the darkness to attack unexpectedly.
The top predator at the Desventuradas is not the typical reef shark, or a grouper with a huge mouth able to swallow a diver. It is not a fearsome animal that kills at night either. The largest predator here is the Juan Fernández sea lion (Arctocephalus philippi), the cutest carnivore we have found in any of our Pristine Seas Expeditions to date. They spend much of the day hanging out on rocky platforms near the water. When we approach them, it’s like someone brought free candy to a school. The sea lions raise their heads, get indeed very excited, and drag their fat bellies from rock to rock until they jump in the water.
The Juan Fernández sea lion is the cutest carnivore we have found in any of our Pristine Expeditions to date. (Photo by Enric Sala)
Underwater, the sea lions become torpedoes of enormous grace and elegance. Their eyes are large as a Japanese cartoon character’s, and their looks pierce us as they swim very fast between us divers. After playing with our bubbles and checking us out very closely, they just hang out, their backsides on the surface and their heads hanging down like bats.
Do you know what you are serving your family tonight? If it’s fish there’s a good chance that you don’t.
Today Oceana unveiled its landmark national seafood fraud report, one of the largest of its kind and one that should make consumers sit up and demand change.
Over the past several years Oceana tested 1,215 fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. DNA testing confirmed that fully one-third of this seafood was mislabeled—that is, what we ordered wasn’t what we got.
No matter where you live, seafood fraud is likely to be an issue. But if you live in Austin, Houston or Boston, it is especially widespread. According to our investigation, almost half of the fish tested in these cities was mislabeled. In Southern California the problem was even worse, with mislabeled fish accounting for more than half (52%) of the seafood we tested! Elsewhere, rates of mislabeling were found to be 39 percent in New York City, 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida, 36 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Kansas City, 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland and 18 percent in Seattle. Nationwide, sushi restaurants mislabeled their fish 74 percent of the time.
As one of our scientists told me, these findings are disturbing—and they’re disturbing for a few reasons. Not only can seafood fraud rip you off by making you pay more for less expensive fish but it can actually be bad for your health. Our scientists found that some fish that had landed a spot on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of its high mercury content was nonetheless being substituted for safer fish. In New York this meant tilefish disguised as red snapper and halibut, while in South Florida king mackerel became grouper. Elsewhere escolar, an oily fish that is known for its purgative effects in some consumers, was substituted 84% of the time for white tuna
If that wasn’t bad enough, mislabeling can be harmful to the oceans as well. By disguising one species as another, it can be nearly impossible for consumers to make responsible decisions to avoid eating overfished species.
So what can you do about it? Right now the United States imports more than 90 percent of the seafood it consumes, but the FDA inspects less than one percent of that seafood specifically for fraud. Obviously this needs to change and we need to call upon our lawmakers to ensure full traceability for all seafood sold in the country. Oceana is hard at work behind the scenes to make this happen. In the meantime, if you don’t want to be duped by seafood fraud you can start by asking where and how your seafood was caught, be wary of fish that seems cheaper than it should and, when possible, buy fish whole.
Seafood is one of the healthiest sources of protein on the planet and should be a part of any healthy diet, but we need to know that what we’re buying is what the label says it is—for the good of our health, our wallets and our oceans.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
Right now on the New York Times TimesCast Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner is discussing Oceana's landmark National Seafood Fraud Report issued today. You can watch that interview above and read the Times' take on this sweeping investigation.
The report found that one third of the seafood that was DNA tested nationwide, from 1,215 fish samples in 21 states, was mislabeled.
More than 60 people (and one adorable dog) attended a lively rally last Wednesday outside the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. The mood was festive and ripe with anticipation, as attendees held signs, listened to several speakers, and spoke to the press. Oceana handed out dozens of lawn turbines and one attendee was spotted wearing a home-made, 5-foot tall windmill on his head! It certainly made a powerful visual statement.
The event was organized by the Marylanders for Offshore Wind Power Coalition, of which Oceana is a member, and was held just prior to a hearing in the state’s Senate Finance Committee on the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013. As we posted recently, the bill would jumpstart the offshore wind industry and create hundreds of jobs in Maryland. These are great steps toward a clean energy future!
The Coalition is made up of Maryland environmental, faith, business, and other community groups working together to secure offshore wind energy off of Maryland’s coast. The Sierra Club, the NAACP, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Interfaith Power and Light, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, and University of Maryland students spoke at the event.
- Victory! Delaware Becomes Seventh State in U.S. to Ban Shark Fin Trade! Posted Thu, May 16, 2013
- It's Endangered Species Day! Posted Fri, May 17, 2013
- Stocks Show Signs of Recovery, But Still Work to Do Posted Fri, May 17, 2013
- Disabled Killer Whale Survives with Help from Its Pod Posted Tue, May 21, 2013
- Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless Discusses His New Book, The Perfect Protein Posted Wed, May 22, 2013