Interview-Tim White & Shark Finning

Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station
Tim White building his housing

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.

Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station
Tim White measuring a shark

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.

Why does Shark Stanley and his friends need your help?

SharkStanley Shark Defenders
Find out why Shark Stanley and his friends need your help!

Hi, my name is Shark Stanley and I am a Hammerhead Shark. My friends, Reina the Manta Ray, Pierre the Porbeagle Shark, and Waqi the Oceanic Whitetip Shark, and I live on a coral reef. We are not only featured in a new (free!) children’s book called The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends, but we have been traveling all around the terrestrial world. People all around the world want to help keep all sorts of sharks safe from shark finning.

Shark finning is a brutal fishing practice that is very wasteful. Only the shark’s fin is hacked off, and most often the rest of the shark is thrown back into the ocean to die a slow and agonizing death. Shark meat needs to be treated and frozen right away, and most fishing boats don’t have that capability or are targeting other higher priced catches like tuna instead.

Humans around the world also would like to keep manta rays from being killed almost solely for their gill rakers. A specific part of a manta ray’s gill is used in a controversial new Traditional Chinese Medicine formula. Again, like finned sharks, most of the manta ray is not used after their gill rakers are cut off.

If you would like to help, print out a picture of me here (scroll down page) and take a picture with me anywhere in the world.

Shark Defenders would like to collect 5000 photos from all 177 CITES countries, and partner with at least 50 organizations or celebrities. CITES is the abbreviation for the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora” and is an international treaty that regulates the trade of endangered wildlife around the world. There is a meeting of CITES scheduled for March of 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Endangered Animals of Finding Nemo: Great White Sharks

endangered species in Finding Nemo
Bruce the Great White Shark from Finding Nemo

G’day mate, my name’s Bruce. I’m a Great White Shark. While I am great, heh heh, I am white only on my belly! The rest of me is gray. In Finding Nemo, my and chums and I had the motto, “Fish are friends, not food.” In real life I eat only meat. It gets messy sometimes since there are no barbies (BBQ’s) out in the ocean, mate!

Dory once sang, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” That applies to most of us sharks as we have to swim all the time in order to breathe. Some great white sharks swim great distances, like from Baja California to the Hawaiian islands. Some great white sharks join me off of Oz (Australia) from South Africa, mate! There are so few of us in all of the oceans that us males gotta swim that far to find any Sheilas (females)!

I am 20 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds. I am as long as a small RV (recreational vehicle), and weigh as much as much as a car!

Since I can’t brush my teeth, mate, I continuously grow new teeth. That way my teeth do not get cavities or get blunt.

I can detect electricity in the seawater around me. This helps me find my food, as your heart gives off electricity, mate.

Though I am widely feared, more sharks are killed a year by humans (73-100 million) than humans killed by sharks (average of 5/year). My fins are very valuable to me as they help me steer, but lately it seems that humans want them more than us sharks! We are close to becoming an endangered species because of shark finning. For more on shark finning, check out previous post by Domino the Whale Shark
You can help by not consuming shark fin soup, visiting Sea Stewards, and watching the documentary Sharkwater.

Letter to California Governor Jerry Brown in support of AB 376

shark fin ban & finning
taken at Monterey Bay Aquarium by Cherilyn Jose

Dear Governor Jerry Brown,
As a lifelong California resident, Chinese-American, and Marine Biologist, I urge you to sign AB 376 (The Shark Protection Act) into law. The shark fin ban has nothing to do with racism; it is solely an issue of sustainability. More than 73 million sharks a year are brutally slaughtered by having their fins cut off and the still alive shark is thrown back into the ocean to die a slow agonizing death. Shark finning is a wasteful practice that only fulfills the need for a perceived luxury item known as shark fin soup. Sharks are at the very top of the food chain and when they disappear, every organism down to the tiniest of plankton is affected-including all the seafood we eat. Sharks already face declining numbers due to being caught as bycatch from the often overzealous fishing industry, due to a reduced food supply because of overfishing, due to global warming and the ensuing ocean acidification, and due to pollution from garbage as well as chemicals. Let us cross off shark finning from that long list of threats. Thousands of sharks will be saved a year from this law, and as other states and nations follow California’s lead, eventually millions of sharks will be saved for future generations to respect and protect.
Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,
Cherilyn Chin Jose

send your letter today!
update: as of October 2011, California has banned the sale, purchase or possession shark fins, and restaurants have until January of 2013 to use up their existing stock

Banning shark fin sales in California: A Chinese-American Marine Biologist’s View

great white shark picture
Great White Shark (photo by Cherilyn Chin Jose)

I am a Chinese-American and a marine biologist and I fully support California Assembly Bill (AB) 376 to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in California.  Hawaii has already banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.  I have eaten (and enjoyed) dozens of bowls of shark fin soup in my lifetime but I will no longer do that.  My only regret so far in life is that I chose to serve shark fin soup (instead of melon or white fungus soup) at my wedding because of the strong symbolism behind serving it. 

You might be thinking that since I’m a marine biologist *of course* she’ll be on the side of the sharks or any other creature of the oceans.  But while I respect sharks and their role in the ocean food chain, they are not among my favorite animals of the ocean.  I think that Peter Benchley, the author of the book and movie “Jaws,” really made me realize how important sharks are to humans alive.  Although he is responsible for the way most of us fear and vilify sharks, he was also one of their strongest proponents.  He wrote a book called “Shark Trouble” in 2002.  In it he wrote a fictional tale of what would happen to a self sustaining seaside village if sharks were taken from their coral reefs.  In this tale, foreign fishing vessels removed the sharks from a coral reef community in a matter of days.  But the devastating effects lasted much longer as the entire economy of this fictional village collapsed, and the native fishermen did not even start the downward spiral of their economy!  But soon fiction may turn into non-fiction. It has been observed that octopus populations increase once shark populations decrease, and the octopuses end up eating lots of lobsters or crabs from fishermen’s traps! One real life study concluded that the decline of big sharks leads to an increase of small elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives like rays and skates) that feast on the shellfish that humans eat, like scallops and oysters. 

It is estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.  Many sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are 7 years old, and some large sharks do not reach sexual maturity until their 20’s.  Even then the females only have a few surviving pups.  Even in utero (in the womb) fetal sharks will eat their own brothers and sisters! 

Illegal shark fin sales around the world number at least 1 billion dollars and is (supposedly) second only to drugs like marijuana in illegal trafficking.  Those numbers can certainly be disputed as it is impossible to really track illegal sales, but the point is that in many developing countries, a single shark fin can feed a fisherman’s family for months.  These poor fishermen are not aware that 39 species of sharks are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a threatened (one step away from being endangered) species and that the killing of one shark today means no more sharks tomorrow.  They rarely just kill one, and the whole shark is rarely fully utilized because of the limited space on the fishing vessels.  The sharks are targeted specifically when possible because of the amount of money the fins are worth.  Even the gentle, slow moving Whale Shark, that eats only microscopic plankton, is targeted!  But the consumers of shark fin soup are not living in poverty and can understand that killing the top level predators of any ecosystem cannot last forever.  When was the last time you ate a bear, lion or bald eagle?  These are top level predators on land and humans know that eating them would not be sustainable.  But because the oceans seem so vast and with an endless amount of fish, humans outside the ocean conservation community have yet to grasp that the wildlife supply of the oceans is not endless.  Over 90% of the large fish populations, including sharks, tuna, marlin, swordfish, halibut, and cod are gone (see Scientific American article). Gone forever.  While the supermarket freezer cases are full of fresh fish and you can still order tuna sushi at your local Japanese restaurant, there does not seem any urgency to conserving any fish species.

Some countries around the world (United States included) ban shark finning in their waters.  Palau even created a shark sanctuary in which it is illegal to catch any sharks.  But all nations only have jurisdiction on the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) from their shores.  The rest is international waters.  Often large fleets from foreign countries will swoop in on a developing countries’ waters and take all the fish (including sharks) and then leave.  Some developed countries will pay less developed countries money to let them fish in their waters, but this happens less often then you might hope.

There is much more to this discussion and I know there are always two sides to every story.  I hope that reading my side of the story will at least help you understand why someone would want to stop eating shark fin soup, let alone live in a state like California that wants to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins.  Respect the facts, the opinions of others and follow your own heart.