On April 18, 2015 I attended MARINE’s (Monterey Area Research Institutions’ Network for Education) Ocean Colloquium. There I heard Tim White of Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University speak about shark finning in a remote Pacific island. This interview was conducted by e-mail:
1. Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be at Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University.
After graduating from UCLA with a degree in biology, I was lucky to become involved in a few different marine experiences. I spent one autumn interning as a research diver within the National Park Service , and that following winter I worked as a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea. After a few months on crab boats it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t stay at that gig forever. Very cool learning experience, but it was time to search out other opportunities. We would stay out at sea for a few weeks, and then have spend a busy 24 hours in port offloading crab before heading back out to sea. During one of those offloads in Dutch Harbor, I searched through online conservation job boards, found a posting for a research technician position through Stanford/Hopkins Marine Station, and it worked out!
2. What is shark finning?
Shark finning is a harmful fishing practice that is driven by the demand for shark fin soup. Sharks are captured, their fins are cut off, and the carcasses are often dumped back into the ocean. The fins end up being used in shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in some cultures. In the fishery that I ended up studying the fishermen would actually keep the carcass, but the motivation to hunt sharks still stemmed from the fact that shark fins can be incredibly valuable. The arbitrary and extreme value of shark fins has senselessly put them at great risk – much like the plight of rhinoceroses and their horns.
3. How did you become interested in shark finning?
My overarching motivation is to study the ways that humans impact the ocean, so that we can mitigate and minimize impacts as needed. My involvement with shark finning began once I was hired at Stanford, but I’ve been interested in marine conservation and fisheries ecology for years so the topic has always been loosely on my mind.
4. Where did you study shark finning? Briefly describe your exciting journey getting there.
We studied shark finning in the country of Kiribati, which is an island nation that spans thousands of miles along the equatorial Pacific. I spent three months on an island that is located 1000 miles south of Hawaii. Getting to this remote location was challenging but necessary; one objective was to study shark finning in a region with minimal external/industrial fisheries, and the island of Teraina certainly fit the bill. I flew into an island called Christmas Island and was lucky enough to join a sailing cargo ship that was passing through the region. That fantastic ship dropped me on the island of Teraina and said goodbye. I was certainly happy to see their sails along the horizon three months later – I hadn’t seen another ship since they dropped me off!
5. How did you communicate with the natives?
This project was made possible by some really meaningful partnerships between some Stanford researchers and the communities of Kiribati. My advisors have been working in the region for nearly a decade. In Kiribati, they primarily speak a language called Gilbertese and their English proficiency varies by island. On the particular island I stayed on the prevalence of English was very limited. I began learning Gilbertese on the sail over to the island, so I still had lots to learn! After a few weeks of charades and lots of translation help from a few English-speaking friends, I became competent in the day-to-day essentials like fishing terms, foods, pleasantries. Being 100% immersed in the language certainly helped – I spent nearly every day aboard Kiribati fishing boats that exclusively spoke Gilbertese, so it was a sink or swim scenario.
6. What were the main lessons you learned there?
We tried to take a broad, interdisciplinary look at shark finning. While I was there I collected data on the motivations of shark finning, the species involved in the trade, the impacts on shark populations, and the benefits to local fishermen. It was no surprise for us to learn that shark finning appears to be having really drastic impacts on local shark populations, though this was an important trend to measure. Sometimes folks assume that these tiny, remote islands are in relatively good shape, but this showed that even traditional technology (canoes/single hooks) could have really devastating impacts on shark species in a short time frame.
7. How do you think we can solve shark finning, especially as consumers?
As consumers we need to be sure to absolutely avoid unsustainable shark products. Conservationists have approached this problem from a number of ways. From the conversations I’ve had, it seems like one of the most effective strategies to reduce shark finning is to reduce consumer demand. Conservation groups have launched awareness campaigns in regions of high shark fin consumption, such as Hong Kong. It appears that the general public demand for shark fins is decreasing as people become more aware of the damage that the practice can cause.