"No more shark. We dont have shark." The Filipino fishmonger laughed apologetically after being asked by shark researcher Dr. John McCosker of the California Academy of Sciences if he sold shark. "They are all gone."
Last year I participated in a six week expedition to the Philippines with the California Academy of Sciences, as part of a joint Biological Diversity Expedition with the Philippines Natural History Museum. As filmmaker and a research assistant, I was searching for sharks.
Our team dove approximately 6000 total hours off the main island of Luzon. In that entire time, we discovered hundreds of new species of invertebrates and fish but only observed two small White-tipped reef sharks hunkered down in the dubious protection of a dive resort. In this region known as the "Center of the Center of Biodiversity" we witnessed few fish bigger than a dinner plate swimming on the coral reef. "The first time I dove here thirty years ago there were so many sharks it made me nervous." Dr. McCosker confessed to the camera in part of a series produced with ABC News titled Reefs to Rainforest.
In the fish market we did not find any sharks for sale. They had all been finned and sold to China. "But we do have rays," one man offered. Among the reef fish in the iced bins I observed Eagle Rays and Mobula Rays: the new shark fin.
Philippine Senator Loren Legarda has called yesterday for the passage of a law that will make shark hunting punishable by law.
The Senator cited how the inhumane practice of finning sharks is also causing harm to the environment and sea ecosystem.
"Clearly, the absence of a law forbidding the catching of sharks gives people the courage to continue the practice, which could eventually lead to the extinction of shark species in the country, especially that they reproduce slowly," Legarda said in a statement. As in other areas of the world, shark tourism is increasing in the Philippines creating ongoing economic opportunities.
Asian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong are working towards shark finning regulations as well as limiting the shark fin trade. Recently passed laws in the Western US banning the shark fin trade is limiting the market and making trade more difficult. Banning the fin trade is omportant, but we have to stop overfishing sharks.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature assessed in its Red List of Threatened Species that 30 percent of shark populations around the world are Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction. Since sharks are top predators, their depletion also damages the health of entire ocean ecosystems. Encouraging countries in Asia and elsewhere to stop shark killing is of paramount importance.
There is increasing evidence that Asian countries are becoming aware of the plight of sharks. In December, Taiwan, the fourth largest shark hunting nation passed a law banning the practice of shark finning. Several large hotel chains in Hong Kong and Singapore announced they would stop selling shark fin soup.
On our Philippine's expedition we did see another shark, a new species of Swell shark collected from a deep sea trawl. With building momentum here in the west and awareness in the east to protect sharks from finning, perhaps there is hope we can protect sharks and even understand them as a species before they go extinct.