The shark, which lands on the deck of the Coral Princess boat, is 2m of thrashing gray muscle and teeth, and the crew can’t wait to get their hands on him.
They slip a plastic breathing tube through rows of sharp serrated teeth to pump water over its gills, and get to work: measuring, taking blood and tissue samples, and drilling a small hole in its dorsal fin to attach a satellite transmitter. The device looks a bit like a bath toy.
Seven minutes later, the bull shark is back in the water. He’s got a new name (Ben), a corporate sponsor, and a Web site, which tracks his location every time his fin breaks the surface of the water. Neil Hammerschlag, who heads the RJ Dunlap marine conservation program at the University of Miami, is beaming. “He looked amazing,” he says.
It’s not the typical human-shark encounter but then the human relationship with sharks is at a tipping point — and just in time. Shark populations around the world are heading towards extinction. A creature once seen as a source of dread is now seen as a top priority for conservation.
“It’s starting to feel like the tide for sharks is turning. There is some really good momentum,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, a marine scientist at conservation organization Oceana.
Even so, 2011 has been a particularly deadly year on both sides of the human-shark equation. This month alone, poachers killed 2,000 sharks at a marine sanctuary off Columbia. It may seem an implausible statistic but tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, used in shark fin soup.
On the human side, there have been 13 fatal shark attacks on humans this year, the latest victim being an American diver who was killed off the coast of Australia last weekend.
So far, the spike in shark attacks has not affected the campaign to save sharks. This month alone, California and the city of Toronto banned the sale of shark fins. Maryland said it was considering its own ban. Taiwan outlawed shark finning — the practice of slicing off fins at sea, then returning the animal to the water to drown. Florida is expected to ban the catch of tiger and hammerhead sharks.
There are moves to protect sharks in their own habitat: for example in July last year the Bahamas put 650,000km2 of its waters off-limits to fishing.
But the driving force has been an international campaign against shark finning. “People have reached the point where it is so clear you have one obvious driver of shark mortality so people feel compelled to do something,” said Julliet Eilperin, author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.
One study estimated that the demand for shark fin — seen as a delicacy in China and Taiwan — killed between 26 million and 75 million sharks a year. The global trade is estimated at US$800 million a year. “To be honest, sharks are being slaughtered out here,” says Hammerschlag.
Conservation groups say existing anti-finning measures still do not go far enough. US law still allows sharks to be killed for their fins — just so long as the carcass is brought back to land intact. It merely stops the practice of cutting the fins off at sea.
“The amount of shark catch hasn’t decreased and populations are still declining. With the new rules, they are just bringing in the fins with the body,” said Matt Rand, director of shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group.