Often thought of as the king of the ocean, shark populations are on the decline the world over, while their habitats have been affected by human contact. Mitchell Fuller talks to Riley Elliot about sharks, their decline, and the role they play as apex predators in our ecosystems.
Riley Elliot is a doctoral candidate in marine biology at the University of Auckland. He is undertaking research into sharks and is a passionate shark conservationist.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Mitchell Fuller: How important are sharks?
Riley Elliot: When we think of sharks, we immediately think fear, because for most people their formal education around sharks has been Jaws. What we don’t transition into enough is understanding what sharks actually are and taking that step to flip the Jaws thing upside down and realise the truth. To put it simply sharks are the garbage trucks and doctors of the sea. They eat up the sick, the weak, the mutated, they keep predatory pressure on fish populations so that they swim faster, they maintain a population size that is sustainable, they keep everything in check. Imagine if we stopped having garbage trucks and doctors in our society, our streets would fill up with garbage, we would get sick and there would be nobody to take care of us and obviously society would break down. And in ecosystems all over the world science has proven that having a healthy shark population results in healthy fish populations. A third of the world relies on fish for food, we rely on ecosystems from the ocean to function to provide us with food and water. It might sound preachy that we put sharks on a pedestal but when you realise they are an apex predator and that they have been there for 450 million years, it is a role that really cannot be taken for granted.
MF: What is going on with species? We are seeing quite a lot of species loss, aren’t we?
RE: We have been seeing it generally around the world with humanity’s expansion, we are taking up habitat, we are polluting ecosystems, and we are extracting resources. Sharks, being an apex predator, which means nothing else really hunts them, have very slow reproductive rates. And so when humans all of a sudden inject ourselves into that ecosystem as a predator we are jazzing up 450 million years of stability. The real nail in the coffin for sharks has been in the last thirty years mainly because of shark finning. Most people are aware of it from five-year-olds to fifty-year-olds and luckily because the world has become more aware of it, the demand for it has dropped, but the damage has been done. The vast majority of shark species have been vastly reduced in their populations to a point where sustainability is becoming an issue. So what we have got to do is acknowledge the value of sharks, but then for the sake of legislation and putting tangible things in place that help these animals, we need to justify their role financially and ecologically. To put it simple, the Mako shark has recently come under a lot of pressure as it services a 42-billion-dollar tuna fishery. It chases those fish to keep them fast, keep them healthy, keep them in check, and without those predators those populations will start to dwindle because they will over-utilise their own resources. So across the board it is about being realistic about how we protect animals. You have got to put a financial value on them because unfortunately capitalism is what makes the world go around. And with an animal like a Mako shark it is very easy for scientists to prove that value, once you start throwing that on paper you can start to get traction.
MF: I am at a loss then why New Zealand consciously voted against the protection of Mako sharks.
RE: Let’s rewind back to CITES, which is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. And basically, what it is, is the UN for animals and animals in trouble. What it does is all the members – 183 members which New Zealand is one – join up to the terms and if you are a member you have to toe the industry line, which is that you agree if you trade an animal that is on a list there it will not adversely affect the sustainability of that population. Now, it gets kind of complicated here because no one is going to care about tiny pockets of animals in one niche in the world that is rare and endangered, it is not going to stop the fossil fuel industry, it is not going to stop the fishing industry caring because it doesn’t really affect what they are doing. A lot of these tourism-based animals get voted in quite easily. The reason why the Mako shark was a huge success in that it did get protection, it did get voted in eventually, is that it is worth a lot of money and is a big number animal in the fisheries game. So the countries that voted against the protection of Mako sharks are big money fishing countries, New Zealand is one of them. We saw Japan, the US, New Zealand vote no because they have big stakes in fisheries.
Now what is concerning about that is that the Department of Conversation is who is representing us as New Zealand in these meetings. DOC by its name and definition is representing conservation so it was bewildering not only to scientists globally but New Zealanders in general that a department that is looking after the conservation of endangered animals didn’t do exactly that for the Mako shark which was recently listed as endangered. You do not have to be a cynic to realise there must be some influence coming into that decision, because when DOC got asked to justify their point it was literally along the lines of ‘There are millions of them all over the world, how can they be endangered?’ The point is, they are a highly migratory species and they cross international boundaries, something which CITES stands for, protecting that trade between international boundaries. And there are millions of them yes, but spread across the entire oceans of the world which make up seventy percent of this planet. So the context of justification to not vote for them was laughable, to put it simply, and the data they based their argument on is acknowledged to be data deficient. They cannot make concrete conclusions about the data because it is biased in various forms including location bias, under-reporting bias, etcetera. The bottom line is, you have got an endangered animal: if you are DOC you should be jumping at any opportunity to protect biodiversity, and what is unfortunate for the oceans is that it is somewhat out of sight, out of mind. We see on land a very different picture. Just recently, DOC was preaching about the effort they are making around our bird and mammal species. But what about the sea organisms? It would make sense to conserve them when they become endangered.
MF: What sort of regulation and legislation do you think is necessary to protect these species?
RE: What is really happening is that capitalism is coming before conservation. And conservation is about sustainability. You cannot have sustainable capitalism without the resources being sustained. So, it is like a catch-twenty-two, and so I think it is time people start looking beyond short-term shareholder returns on investment and look at long-term sustainability and resources, otherwise we are being naïve. The problem with a capitalist world is that there are a few handful of corporations making these decisions and they are lobbying and supplying and funding governments. What we have got to remember, and I am a big fan of this aspect and this approach, is we really underestimate the power of public opinion, we forget that politicians work for us, corporations work for us because we buy their products. We have a choice to influence these people’s decisions and ultimately their decisions affect us so we should be standing up to them. And we are starting to see a bit of a movement on this with the climate strikes. The real sad trajectory of science these days is how scientists are working very hard with what they have got to produce results, and we used to make policy based on those results because that is common sense. But in this day and age, scientists are not being recognised as well as they should, implementation of facts is not following through to legislation, and we are stuffing up the world because of it. So we don’t have to change the recipe, it is not about changing the policies, it is about ensuring they are getting implemented, and if they are not then we should be getting angry about that and demanding that they do. It is difficult when it comes to the oceans because it is out of sight and out of mind a lot of the time, and until you go to the supermarket and you can’t buy a piece of snapper, it is not going to hit the average person where it hurts. We want to act before those kinds of scenarios play out so it is up to the marine biologists, the conservationists to bring the facts that we do get from the ocean and bring it to the public to empower that opinion, to demand those changes. Also: work with the fisheries because it is not the fishermen who are doing something wrong, it is about the overarching corporates that pay them and ensure that the finances work well enough that they can make a living doing their job responsibly. We certainly have to capture the vision, like having cameras on board to highlight these things so much so that the dramatic imagery actually lands on the plate of the consumer and they go ‘Woah, I don’t like that’, just like we don’t like factory-farmed eggs.
MF: Obviously, shark stocks are declining and we are having these pressures from fishing. Have you over the time you have been studying sharks seen a change of behaviour in terms of forcing them to act differently because of these changes in their environment?
RE: Yeah, massively. People bring up the issue that shark attacks are increasing and it is a silly statistic because so are the number of people swimming in the ocean. You have got to give context to things. But what we have seen are particular scenarios where human impact is causing at risk behaviours towards some sharks. A simple example is Reunion Island, where there has been a smorgasbord of fatal shark attacks in the last ten years to the point where it was affecting tourism so much, they banned surfing and it is illegal to go surfing there. And that is not good for the people who live there and love the water, but the government said ‘What do you want us to do? Every time someone goes in, they are dying from these Bull shark attacks’. A scientist went there and made a really good documentary that is coming out in December: he applied some pretty simple science and they found that human impact on the land like deforestation, clearing land for agriculture, increased runoff, reduced visibility in the oceans, killing the reef, and dropping fish populations down. Put all these variables together and this basically made hungry sharks overlapping in conditions where they cannot see well with people swimming and surfing. So there is no one variable that causes things, but it is these combinations of variables that inevitably can alter the behaviour of an animal. And when it is an apex predator, it is never a good idea when we are crossing our recreation with that. So we are seeing things like that, there was also a spate of attacks in New South Wales which led to them stopping fishing in some places. And again, in combination with deforestation, clearing land, runoff was affecting visibility and all of a sudden food resources overlapped with human recreation in bad conditions and with sharks there, there were attacks. There is generally in nature a simple biological explanation for everything. Until you reveal that, the media will continue to run stories that have no context. So it is important we get context into things so humans understand how we can responsibly engage with our environment and understand that if you want to go and do something to that environment you accept the risks. Every surfer who has suffered a shark attack and survived – they respect sharks more, they accept the risk of going into a wild environment.
MF: To my understanding, sharks don’t really want to attack humans, right?
RE: Not at all. People fear them, so they don’t want to believe that. But let me put it this way. Everyone would accept sharks are pretty good at doing what they do: they catch tuna, seals etcetera. We are incredibly useless in the ocean so if they wanted to be eating us, they would be eating us every day of the week because we are that easy to catch and there is that many of us. So the simple fact that five to ten fatal attacks happen a year with the billions of people in the water, it just proves that sharks are very good at not attacking humans.