Commercial Shark Slaughter
HAS to stop!

By Eugene Kruger

IGFA Representative: South Africa.

Six years ago, during the national championships of the womens and under 18 light tackle boat facet held at Langebaan, I was visiting the small fishing harbour of St Helena Bay and was surprised to see several commercial fishing boats off loading crate upon crate of small vaalhaai (smooth hound shark). "Ja man," I was told, "we don’t chase after sardine any more as we used to do, it’s much easier to catch these sharks and it pays much better as well. They’re also much easier to catch." There were four boats off loading their catches, and I estimated the haul at about 40 tons. So where were the sharks going? I enquired."Over there, at that factory," I was told.

So I ambled over to the factory, typically a "tourist", and the young floor manager (he turned out to be an Australian working his way through Africa on his own "great expedition") was at first quite friendly.

On the factory floor rows and rows of local women were standing at steel-topped tables dressing the sharks. The heads and guts were dumped into big crates and were returned to the fishing boats which obviously were using it for chum.

He explained that the majority of the meat was exported to the Far East and England. All the fins went to the East. But the cartilage, he told me, was what they were really after. "That’s where the big money is," he told me. According to him it all went to Johannesburg and then sent to South America and turned into an anti-cancer pill. These pills, he said, are very expensive but they could not keep up with demand. Luckily(!), he added, the sharks were plentiful, there was no bag or size limit and were very easy to catch. Also, the commercial fishermen were making more money from catching sharks than from all the other species they fished for at various times of the year.

Then I made the mistake of asking if I could take a picture, seeing how I was an angling journalist. At that his attitude did an about-face and I was ordered off the premises, needless to say without getting my pictures.

This situation contrasted radically with the championships at Langebaan. There the incredulous anglers were told in no uncertain terms that only ten sharks were allowed per person per day. Puzzling, isn’t it? Recreationals, who spend lots of money to be able to catch fish for sport, and use what is definitely the most inefficient method for catching fish, namely rod and reel, were allowed only ten sharks. This restriction, they were told, was to protect the shark population from over exploitation.

Commercials, on the other hand, used nets and were allowed unlimited bags. And then they sold their catch and were making a very good living out of it. Does it make sense? Hardly! AS an aside, the bag limit on the recreationals was in any event totally contra-productive, and also led to a lot of waste, because they did not stop fishing after ten sharks had been caught. They just kept on catching and after the session merely chose the ten largest ones to take to the scales and discarded the rest. To put it bluntly, the excess catch was dumped, dead. Without such a restriction the total catch could have been brought to the scales and sold along with the rest to a factory. At least then the catch would not have had to be dumped. A noble effort at conservation for sure by the authorities, but totally impractical and contra-productive!Back in my office I directed an enquiry to the fisheries directorate in Cape Town. Yes, I was told, they were aware of the problem and were contemplating legislation to stop the excessive, commercial exploitation of sharks.

Well, that was six years ago.

Today the sharks are still being slaughtered. "Production" of shark fins and meat increases every month, and the cancer pill is still being sold. Needless to say the shark population is being decimated. In South African waters we have a total ban on the catching of the Great White and Ragged-Tooth sharks, but these are not the target of the commercials. At night, and even during day time, commercial boats can be seen close in shore scraping out every single shark they can lay their hands on. In the rest of the world, the battle to save the sharks continues to rage. Sadly however, the shark population is still being ravaged on a daily basis. And it is the commercial interest that continues to be served.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the U.S., a country which many think (incorrectly) has solved all its fisheries management problems, has implemented legislation that came into operation in 1999 to restrict both commercial and recreational shark fishing. But it heavily favours the commercial interest, precisely the group that by far causes the most damage. In the Atlantic coast off the U.S. a total ban prohibits the catching, by both commercials and recreationals, of angel, basking, bigeye thresher, bignose, Caribbean reef, Caribbean bignose, dusky, galapagos, longfin mako, narrowtooth, night, sevengill, sixgill, sand tiger, small tail, whale and white sharks. Recreational anglers may keep one shark per vessel per trip (note: NOT one per person but only one per vessel) of the following: sandbar, silky, tiger, blacktip, spinner, lemon, bull, nurse, smooth hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, shortfin mako, blue, thresher, porbeagle, oceanic, white tip, blacknose, finetooth and bonehead.

There is also a recreational size limitation of 4.5 feet. The comment of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) is: "… the NMFS is still trying to manage the Atlantic shark fishery for the benefit of the commercial fisherman in spite of the fact that no large-scale commercial fishery for sharks has ever been sustainable and the recreational fishery is many magnitudes more valuable to the U.S. economy."

In the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of its "The International Angler" magazine, IGFA also reports that "a judge has overturned most of the commercial restrictions on sharks due to a suit filed by commercial fishing interests. All the recreational fishery restrictions still stand." U.S. recreational anglers killed some 8000 Atlantic sharks in 1992 , which is insignificant when compared to the estimated 30 000 sharks that are killed every year as a discarded by-catch by U.S. Atlantic longliners.

Serious discrepancies still exist in what is allowed as compared to what is actually happening: last year the U.S. commercial quota for small coastal sharks was 790 000 pounds, but the annual dead discard of sharks by shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico is a massive 5 million pounds! If that is happening in an enlightened country such as the U.S., what hopes have we in South Africa of ever stopping the slaughter?

The horror stories don’t stop there: in Hawaii for example, where the number of sharks killed by Hawaiian longline fisheries increased from 2 289 in 1991 to a staggering 60 857 in 1998 — a 2 500% increase! To compound the atrocity, only about 68% of this catch was retained, with the rest being finned and discarded. And while a total ban has existed on the finning of sharks in the federal waters of the U.S. Atlantic since 1993, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (which includes Hawaii as a major member) has refused to act.

It is therefore clear that the shark population all over the world is being plundered. Despite warnings by fisheries biologists, conservationists and concerned sport anglers, governments seem aloof to the problem. The commercial interests hold sway. In South Africa it is plainly apparent that the government has long since totally accepted the myth propagated by commercial interests that commercial fishing should be regarded more favourably than recreational angling , even though it decimates the resource upon which it is based. Current fishing regulations have targeted the recreational sector while the commercial sector continues largely unhindered. And even where legislation does restrict them, little, it seems, is done to enforce the controls.

Is there hope for the future?

Some efforts by the recreational sector need to be highlighted. The Surf Angling Association (previously known as the ‘Rock and Surf Association’), has for many years been releasing more than they kept. They also work closely with ORI in tagging and research programmes.

The Light Tackle Boat Association now practices a total catch, weigh and release policy for all fish caught in saltwater tournaments. The Deep Sea Association also uses catch, tag and release in many of its tournaments. These actions and policies are all highly noble and need to be applauded, but it begs the question as to its efficacy in significantly conserving the resource upon which sport fishing in saltwater depends.

The answer has to be a disappointing NO!

For every fish released by a recreational, how many are caught by the commercials — ten, one hundred, a ton? An irony of the recreational saltwater fishing licence is that in a saltwater tournament the angler has to buy a licence so that he can ‘go fishing’, but is not allowed to land anything! It just does not make sense. The share of the resource between the commercial and recreational sectors is a debate that cannot be completey divorced from the issue of shark fishing. What is required is a sane policy that will allow the recreational sector to attempt to catch a fair share, while bringing commercial catches well within scientifically sound limits that will sustain the resource. Is this really too much to hope for?


Fishingowl says "No wonder the commercial industry wants to stop the catching of sharks by the recreational anglers!!"