I remember seeing my first shark as a young man while surfing Malibu. It was 1975 when the blockbuster thriller film JAWS terrified the population from the coasts to Colorado. We were sitting in the lineup watching the horizon for the next set. A fellow surfer yelped “shark!” and quickly paddled away from a splash and the following fin. I watched the shark swim towards me first with interest and then with amusement. The fin was only 3 inches high! Not a great white or other large predatory shark, this was the gentle and splendidly patterned leopard shark (Triakus semifacsiata). I was immediately intrigued.
Since that time I have seen sharks from many perspectives including the small to the large and from the dynamic to the dead. I have spent hours underwater with “The Big Three” (white shark, tiger and bull) without fear or incident. I’ve kicked alongside the majestic manta ray flapping like flying eagles, and wallowed in the mud watching foraging bat rays. I’ve photographed sharks, tagged sharks and saved more than a few. Fast, flat, skinny and weird, sharks are amazing animals.
As a diver and surfer, sharks were part of my ecosystem. As a student of marine biology at the University of California Santa Barbara, I observed large thresher and angel sharks landed in the harbor. White sharks were sold under the label of whitefish. Santa Barbara was one of the largest commercial markets for shark on the west coast. Commercial thresher and angel shark fisheries were on the verge of collapse due to drift gill nets. White sharks were being wiped out in tournaments, vendetta killings, and in gill nets. As an active SCUBA diver, I watched as blue sharks slowly vanished. The sharks of my youth were rapidly disappearing.
The decline in global shark populations has accelerated in the 2000s, largely driven by the increase in wealth in mainland China, and the associated demand for luxury items like shark fin soup.
On a sailing expedition from San Francisco to New Zealand between 2001 and 2003, our team dived and filmed hundreds of sharks swimming and reefs and in the lagoons of the French Polynesian Tuamotus. We experienced the thrill of diving with hundreds of sharks, but we also filmed finned sharks, carcasses of sharks piled on docks, and ships from San Francisco to Hong Kong with their rails crammed with dried shark fins. My graduate work is in environmental health and toxicology, not studying sharks. But seeing sharks living, and dead inspired me to learn more, and investigate and fight the shark fin trade. In 2003, after ten years, I quit my job at the UC Berkeley Department of Integrative Biology and founded Shark Stewards to protect the health of the ocean by saving sharks and the ecosystems they live in.
Although overfishing and bycatch are taking its toll on sharks, the greatest emerging threat is shark finning driven by the demand for shark fin soup. A study by Dr. Shelly Clarke estimated that as many as 73 million sharks were being killed for the shark fin trade. In 2006 we founded the non-profit Shark Stewards to educate and introduce legislation to save sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade and protect critical marine habitat.
Along the way I accidentally became a documentary filmmaker. In 2006, I co-produced my first shark documentary Sharks Stewards of the Reef with Trillium Films on banning shark finning and providing solutions. We used the film to advocate for the California Shark Fin ban (Shark Stewards was the catalyst) and support the introduction of the first Marine National Monument now known as the Papahanaumokuakea.
In addition to California, 11 other states have shark fin trade bans, with two pending in New Jersey and Florida. On November 20, the US House of Representatives passed HR 737, the Federal shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. ADD YOUR VOICE!
Since 2001 the movement for sharks is growing and sharks are now higher on the conservation radar. Even as sharks are vanishing at the rate of 100 million per year, photographing and diving with sharks is a growing industry worldwide. Over the past 7 years Shark Stewards has been working in education and conservation policy in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and this summer: in Indonesia and Timor Leste. We now have a chapter lead by young divers in Shenzhen Guangzhou China, at ground zero of wildlife trade.
We have our work cut out for us, but we will continue to work in education, legislation and building a wider appreciation and protection for sharks. Shark Stewards now has chapters from Bristol to China, with 4 US chapters driving shark conservation. Now at year’s end we are writing grants and raising funds to support them, and create and sustain a shark sanctuary in Indonesia at a new conservation and dive center with our partner organization SORCE.org.
Diving with sharks, and seeing their populations crash in my lifetime inspired me to dedicate my life to saving them. Will you join me?
We are kicking off our year end fund raising this Giving Tuesday to support our overseas education, conservation area and chapters to keep shark swimming.
Donations will go to developing ocean education materials for the local villages, help protect the new MPA, catalyze plastic waste reduction activities upstream, support training for reef and fish surveys including providing shark assessment data to Indonesian Wildlife and Fisheries and travel and infrastructure. Thank you!
David McGuire, Director Shark Stewards