Saving Sharks 101
First published in The Tico Times
Sharks’ primal attraction stems from the fear evoked from an
animal so powerful it could eat you, as well as being tasty meat you
want to eat. But once you know sharks, respect and awe trump fear and
hunger, most of the time.
By Shawn Larkin
Many cultures with a maritime
heritage seem surprisingly sympathetic about sharks to landlubbers who
normally only take the time to fear them or eat them.
come to know the ocean soon love sharks. From ancient Polynesians and
Panamanians to the modern dive tribe, sharks and people get along really
well together. The dive tribe first focused modern conservation
attention on sharks long ago, and we continue to be sharks greatest
champions, as most recently evidenced by reports from Colombia’s Mal
Pelo Biological Reserve by Russian divers (TT, Oct. 14).
primal attraction stems from the fear evoked from an animal so powerful
it could eat you, as well as being tasty meat you want to eat. But once
you know sharks, respect and awe trump fear and hunger, most of the
Over decades of taking people to swim with sharks, I have
seen many self-proclaimed “sharkophobes,” who upon seeing the dreaded
object of their fears in the big blue, jump right in – with their
children. What causes such a sudden shift in attitudes?
came first in the form of a dive briefing on how to get in the water
relatively safely with big sharks. Then came a demonstration. Then
curiosity takes over. Finally, holdouts succumb to peer pressure – or is
it peers uneaten?
The reward seems to be the power to tell
stories that trump nearly all others at dinner that night, as in: “You
caught a big fish? You saw a sloth? You rode a zip line? We swam with
sharks.” Another reward is the wisdom that may come from contemplating
one of the most enduring and diverse evolutionary masterpieces produced
by our blue planet.
Sharks have been around much, much longer than
humans. Their design has been so successful that they have branched
into more than 300 production models ranging from the rare little horn
shark at Cocos Island National Park to the largest fish in the sea –
whale sharks – whose only known birthing waters appear to be near the
Osa Peninsula of the south Pacific coast.
Other famous Costa
Rican sharks include: big schools of scalloped hammerheads; silky
Galapagos; silver-tip sharks of Cocos; the bull sharks of Santa Rosa
National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and of the
river mouths of both coasts; the Pacific white tips of most famed
Pacific dive sites; and the nurse sharks of the Caribbean reefs. Cocos
Island is often called Isle of the Sharks or Shark Island.
although decades ago divers at Cocos greatly helped launch the global
changing of perception of sharks from negative to positive, Costa Rica
is now much more famous as an enemy of sharks, as we sell them for
profit garnered from the exotic tastes of wealthy foreigners. Shark fins
for soup can be worth more than double the price of the next
most-valuable Tico seafood: fresh, cold tuna. Since the fins are desired
dried like jerky, fishers need no costly refrigeration or ice, just
space. But this space is at a premium, so all manner of getting rid of
anything but fins is irresistible to the greedy and wasteful.
way sharks are fished here is also greedy and wasteful. Long-lines with
lots of hooks left to drift and kill indiscriminately is not
sustainable, and neither is netting congregations of marine life with
giant purse seine nets. Our neighboring countries are already banning
these foolishly unsustainable methods. Costa Rica is appearing to be the
slacker nation in Latin America when it comes to helping conserve
valuable marine life. We should have been the world leader. We could
The Polynesian Marshall Islands recently parleyed
their culture’s reverence of sharks into sustained economic generation
through marine conservation. This seafaring nation declared all of its
waters a shark refuge and banned foolish fishing. The remote islands
have focused on where the most steady and nationally distributed money
is coming from: divers, sportfishing, artisan fishing, surfers and
ecotourists. The money goes into conserving what makes the money, not
exterminating the sharks with the golden fins. The Marshall Islands is
now home to the biggest real shark sanctuary on planet Earth. You can be
sure countless travel vacations and investments are being planned
The Polynesians and the Panamanians, and many other
ocean nations, see the writing on the water. The only way to conserve
big marine animals is with big marine protected areas and corridors. No
matter how much money is spent on counting, tagging, satellite
transmitting, diving, boating, filming, fuel, foundations, studies,
publications and summits, they will all come to the same conclusion:
make managed protected areas and corridors or your big-money animals
like sharks, which people love so much, will disappear.