Sharks Are the New Whales

They’ve had similar enemies, life histories, and PR problems.

A scuba diver swims next to a whale shark as it is fed from a feeder boat off the beach of Tan-awan, Oslob, in the southern Philippines island of Cebu on March 1, 2013.
A scuba diver swims next to a whale shark as it is fed from a feeder boat off the beach of Tan-awan, Oslob, in the southern Philippines island of Cebu on March 1, 2013.

Photo by David Loh/Reuters

Seven years ago, I jumped into shark-infested waters. Three dozen black-tipped reef sharks swarmed around me while two 12-foot tiger sharks circled the perimeter. There was no cage—just 12 divers and a swarm of sharks, sometimes literally brushing past us. They darted above, below, and beside me in the silent and shallow blue waters off South Africa.

Sharks are in. Who wants to sit on an overcrowded boat, squinting queasily through binoculars or struggling to click your camera in time with the flip of a humpback’s tail, when you can come face-to-face with one of the top predators of the sea? Sharks are the new whales, my friends. And I’m not just talking about tourism.

What really makes sharks the new whales is a global change in conservation priorities from “Save the whales!” to “Save the sharks!” Five species of sharks and both species of manta rays finally received trade restriction protections at an international meeting in Bangkok this month. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species meeting brings together 177 nations every two years to determine which species should be listed in one of three appendices with varying levels of trade protection. The last CITES meeting was a total bust for sharks. Four shark-protection proposals were rejected.

This year was different. All three hammerhead species, the porbeagle shark, the oceanic whitetip, and manta rays have joined the basking shark, whale shark, and great white shark on Appendix II, which requires permits to export these species. That may not sound like much, but countries can issue permits only if fishermen prove they caught the sharks legally and sustainably—a tall order because many populations of these species have declined more than 90 percent in just the last half-century. In fact, a week before CITES convened, a study found that approximately 100 million sharks are being killed each year, primarily to meet demand for the shark fin trade. Oceanic whitetip fins can bring in $45 a pound; hammerhead fins can fetch double that. “These seriously threatened sharks and rays can finally get some breathing room to recover,” says Rick MacPherson, the conservation programs director at the Coral Reef Alliance.

Sharks and whales share the same basic history: the same bad PR, the same enemies, and even similar biological characteristics that contributed to their vulnerability in the first place.

Let’s start with sharks’ image problem. Its origin is no mystery: Shark attacks do happen, even if they’re 47 times less common than being struck by lightning. In 1975, Jaws took shark phobia to new heights, “galvanizing whole generations into misbelieving that sharks were bloodthirsty man-eaters,” MacPherson says. But whales once played pop culture villains, too: Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg (and Ahab’s vindictive quest didn’t work out too well for him or his crew), and Monstro swallowed Geppetto and killed Pinocchio.

Just as our fear of whales turned to awe, so has our attitude shifted about sharks. Bruce, the smiling shark in Finding Nemo, and friends chanted “Fish are friends, not food,” and a Shark Stanley campaign at the CITES meeting portrayed a friendlier kind of shark. “There’s a loud chorus of people in the scientific community and conservation world doing their best to dispel stereotypes,” says David Shiffman, a graduate student in ecosystem science and policy at the University of Miami.

It’s working. People across the world are learning why sharks, like whales, are essential to marine ecosystems and why we should be concerned as their populations plummet. Sharks, many of which are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are finally being seen that way. The rise of shark tourism has helped: The Bahamas, for instance, which has outlawed all shark fishing, has pulled in $800 million in shark-related tourism over the past 20 years. “Most people find sharks fascinating,” says Elizabeth Wilson, the manager of the Global Shark Conservation Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “When they learn how at-risk they are, most want to do something to change the situation.”

But not everyone is onboard with saving the sharks. For all their historical animosity, Japan and China are united in their opposition to restrictions on whaling and shark hunting. Japan has argued for years, first with whales and now with sharks, that CITES has no business regulating trade on marine species, claiming that’s the job of regional fisheries management organizations. China repeated the argument; it has a financial stake as the world’s largest importer of shark fins, used in shark fin soup. But CITES regulates trade. RFMOs regulate fishing and cannot easily enforce regulations on the open seas. (Fragmentary regulation is one of the reasons that one-third of open-ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.) CITES and RFMOs complement, rather than conflict with, one another. “A CITES listing can help provide additional data to help RFMOs make more logical regulations and quotas,” says Shiffman.

Japan and China touted a second argument: that shark-trade restrictions can’t be implemented because it’s too hard to tell different shark fins apart. “That’s preposterous,” says Shiffman. “Saying fisherman can’t tell the difference between fins is lying while implying your fishermen are significantly less intelligent than fisherman across the world, which isn’t true. It’s playing dumb to get what you want.” That argument flopped this year. The delegates to the CITES meeting attended a shark fin identification workshop given by shark researcher Demian Chapman before the vote, and they could already tell the fins apart themselves.

At past meetings, Japan and China’s opposition was enough to shoot down most proposals restricting shark trade. This year, with 37 countries sponsoring the shark proposals, the two economic powerhouses couldn’t prevent the necessary two-thirds majority from adopting the proposals, though the oceanic whitetip barely scraped by with 68.6 percent of the vote.

We’ve seen this pattern of triumph over opposition before. In the 1970s, researchers became aware of how dramatically whale populations had fallen—from an estimated 4 million in the 13th century, at the dawn of commercial whaling, to about half that in 1975. The numbers were starker for certain whales: About 450 blue whales cruise the seas today, down from an estimated 210,000 before whaling began, and humpback whales are thought to be at 1 percent of their pre-whaling population.

As technology made whaling more efficient—and devastating—in the 1970s and 1980s, the conservation efforts picked up steam as well, and the familiar “Save the Whales” slogan was soon on the lips of environmentalists and schoolchildren across the world. Yet whale stocks continued to plummet, to the extent that the whaling industry itself was in danger of collapsing if it hunted the great mammals to extinction. Whale tourism had begun in the 1950s and the animals’ growing popularity raised awareness about their precarious future.

The International Whaling Commission tried and failed multiple times to tighten whaling regulations until it finally issued a moratorium on all whale hunting in 1982. Still, Japan objected and has issued “scientific permits” for whale kills, and Iceland and Norway disregard the moratorium altogether. But whales finally got the opportunity to recover from centuries of hunting.

There are biological reasons why sharks are as threatened as their cetacean neighbors. Sharks aren’t like other fish. In terms of age to sexual maturity, length of gestation periods, and litter size, sharks are more like marine mammals. Nearly all fish reach sexual maturity in a year or two and then spawn millions of eggs. Sharks, like whales, can take two or three times as long to sexually mature. They mate once every one to three years and gestate for up to a year or more. Litters include one to 75 pups, depending on the species. In short, fish tend to reproduce quickly. Sharks and whales don’t, so they can’t recover quickly from overfishing.

So shark researchers and conservationist are taking a page out of the “Save the Whales” playbook by increasing public awareness of the issue—and taking it one big step further with technology. Sharks have one ally whales lacked 30 years ago: social media. For the first time, the full CITES meeting was live-streamed this year. The Twitterverse was aflutter with commentary from conservation organizations, marine scientists, and shark enthusiasts. “What I think was the most interesting component of this CITES meeting was the extent to which online outreach played a part,” says Shiffman, who pulled an all-nighter to watch the live stream, tweet the proceedings, link to supporting studies for delegate arguments and then blog about it. “It made it easy for people all over the world to pay attention and participate in a live conversation.”

It’s a conversation long overdue. “Sharks are absolutely the new whales,” says Chapman, the Stony Brook University marine scientist who taught the fin identification workshops at CITES. “Before the ’70s, nobody cared about whales. Then people started getting interested and we had a moratorium on whaling. In the last five years, countries all over the world are suddenly taking the problem of unsustainable shark fishing seriously.” And finally, people’s fears about sharks are focused not on avoiding or surviving an attack by the predators, but on ensuring that the predators themselves survive.