The word "shark" almost invariably raises sinister, alarming images in the minds of most people. The average shark is neither menacing nor malevolent. In fact, sharks considered "man eaters" like Great Whites are like many other large predators, similar to mountain lions or bears, which are essentially indifferent to humans in most circumstances. In addition, less than two dozen of the approximately 400+ species of sharks are capable, let alone inclined to consume a live human.
Sharks, as a group, have remained essentially unchanged in form and function for hundreds of millions of years. Perhaps because of their long evolutionary history, sharks exhibit a remarkable variety of highly specialized adaptations. Sharks have a keen sense of smell, unusual blood chemistry, and have developed a mysterious abilities of detecting the faintest of electrical fields, among many other unique adaptations. All sharks are predators, and usually exist at, or close to, the apex of their food chains. As such, they are important indicator species in examining marine ecosystems as a whole, and may be important in regulating other species' densities.
Compared with more commercially important groups of fishes, research on shark ecology and biology is sparse. However, enough information exists to suggest that most grow and mature slowly, and produce few young compared with other species of fishes. The low reproductive rate of many sharks implies that sharks should be highly vulnerable to current commercial fishing practices, and there is a history of collapse in past shark fisheries. This suggests that a new, more conservative approach needs to be taken concerning the fishing of these animals.
Historically, there have been few shark fisheries in North America. No intensive shark fisheries existed until the 1930s, when sharks were heavily exploited for the oil from their livers. These fisheries declined after severe overfishing, and the introduction of synthesized products made it unprofitable. However, a new fishery developed in the late 1970s, fueled by demand for shark meat, and a large foreign demand for shark fins (priced up to $350.00 per lb.) . The high price that can be obtained for shark fins has led to the practice of finning, in which just fins are removed, and the rest of the animal discarded. Moreover, many species of sharks are being taken in large numbers as an incidental bycatch of other fisheries, such as the billfish and tuna fisheries. On the east coast of North America, shark populations have been declining rapidly for many years under heavy fishing pressure. This led the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to develop a large-scale management plan for shark fisheries on the Atlantic and gulf coasts, in hopes of rebuilding the heavily overfished resource. Nevertheless, NMFS admits that our present lack of knowledge regarding the migratory patterns, ecology, and biology of individual species of sharks precludes efficient management, and the current management plan can be viewed as essentially a stopgap measure.
Currently, no plan for management of west coast shark fisheries exists. Already, evidence suggests that the populations of several species have fallen dramatically in the past several decades, and the California Fish and Game Department has since regulated the sport take of some of these species. However, regulating a fishery after it has crashed is not a management technique of choice, especially since the ecological and economic effects of removing these top predators is unknown. Because of the increasing demand for shark meat and fins, there is concern about the potential for further reductions to already declining shark populations, and to populations of species of sharks that have not previously been fished for directly. However, again the current deficiency of data on most sharks, combined with the current shortage of funding for gathering new information, makes it extremely difficult to correctly manage fisheries for these animals.
To help address the critical lack of data, and contribute to public awareness of the issues involved in shark conservation, the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF) was formed as a nonprofit (as a project of Earth Island Institute) research and education group in 1990. Examples of successful past endeavors, such as the protection of the white shark off the California coast with the passage of A.B. 522 (in which PSRF played an important role), show increasing concern about the future of elasmobranchs, and fisheries overall. However, especially when it comes to sharks we must fight uphill against preexisting stereotypes born out of the misinformation about shark behavior. Films such as Jaws, and the focus of most media productions on the dangerous aspects of sharks, have caused many public misconceptions regarding these animals. Clearly, much needs to be done to correct these misconceptions, and better educate the public and others involved in shark fishing about what needs to be done to conserve these animals. PSRF believes that increased public awareness will not only result in dispelling many myths surrounding sharks, but will also result in an emphasis on raising the currently inadequate level of funding for research. Additional and more comprehensive data are sorely needed to develop effective management plans that will help manage and protect these unique and important resource.
The following outlines the multifaceted approach PSRF is using to contribute to the understanding and conservation of sharks.
The mission of PSRF is to develop and assist projects that contribute to a better understanding of
elasmobranchs, with an emphasis on those which contribute to their conservation and management.
PSRF has developed a multifaceted approach to dealing with the issues involved consisting of: (1)
research conducted by PSRF, (2) research projects sponsored or assisted by PSRF, and (3) an
educational outreach program. Moreover, PSRF is eliciting the guidance of a broad-based group of
institutions and researchers to assist in the continued development of these areas including the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG),
and scientists from Long Marine Lab (UCSC), Moss Landing Marine Labs (Ca. State, San Jose ),
Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).
Research - individual and cooperative up
PSRF is primarily involved in gathering data on sharks that occur in and around Monterey Bay and
San Francisco Bay. Besides providing tagging data important for assessing the abundance,
distribution and migratory patterns of sharks, PSRF is researching and contributing to research
which documents their behavior, biology and ecology. Moreover, PSRF intends to add to the
literature regarding the development of less invasive and more effective capture and tagging
PSRF conducts most data collection aboard our own or chartered and volunteered sportfishing or
scuba-diving vessels. Aerial reconnaissance is used in the spring and fall to locate basking sharks
and to survey killer whale populations. For tag and release studies, techniques developed by
NMFS, CDFG, and local researchers are used, which have been tested and found effective and to
cause no long-term harm to the animals.
Another project concerns observations of feeding and additional behaviors in Great White sharks.
PSRF is collaborating with other local researchers on this project. Observations are conducted from
research facilities on Ano Nuevo Island at Ano Nuev o State Park, and from boats. The data
gathered from this project will add to that already gathered from a similar project being conducted
by other investigators at the Farrallon Islands near San Francisco, and should contribute significantly
to our understanding of white shark behavior and population dynamics.
Since there has been so little research done on sharks, the field is wide open for new and interesting
studies. Many projects are currently being considered, or are in development, either by PSRF
directly, or in cooperation with other researchers. As our funding base increases, we are looking
forward to being able to purchase new equipment (such as global positioning systems equipment,
electronic tags, etc.), which will allow us to refine and expand upon the data collection methods
currently being used.
PSRF also conducts aerial surveys of killer whale distribution and abundance in Monterey Bay. The
data gathered is compiled and forwarded to the Marine Mammal Fund, Earth Island Institute, Moss
Landing Marine Lab, and Hopkins Marine Station.
Sponsored/Assisted Projects up
Besides our own research efforts, PSRF fosters independent and cooperative studies on sharks by
sharing equipment, knowledge, and resources with others interested in shark research. We have,
and continue to, successfully assist in the development o f many independent shark research
projects. Many of these consist of theses, initiated by graduate students from around the world. For
example, we helped with the development of a thesis project to study the food source of the
basking shark, and are currently aiding another from Germany who is analyzing levels of toxic
compounds in shark blood. We also assist the work of other groups and agencies involved in shark
research and conservation, such as NMFS, CDFG, and MBNMS, among others. Moreover, we a
re working actively to foster cooperation among shark researchers by contributing to the formation
of an on-line database for open access to data on shark behavior, biology, and ecology.
As critical as the need for better data on sharks is, effective management and protection of them
should begin with education and increased awareness of the issues involved. PSRF agrees with the
conclusions outlined in the latest report on elasmobranch fisheries by the United Nation's Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO), that only through intensive and widespread educational outreach
programs will it be possible to motivate fishers, scientists, the public and legislators to work together
toward the conservation of elasmobranchs. PSRF has been involved in many public education and
outreach efforts, and continues to expand in this area. Educational efforts are conducted all year,
and proceed along several different lines. PSRF has often been called on to give public lectures to
school groups or concerned citizen groups. We also have worked often with various news media
and press from around the world to highlight timely shark research or conservation related issues.
Also, students from local colleges and universities are encouraged to volunteer to help in the
collection and management of data on tagging expeditions and other research projects. Volunteers
are taught the natural history and conservation efforts regarding sharks, methods of data collection,
and the use of the boats and tagging equipment.
We feel that a broad-based educational approach will be most effective in promoting increased
awareness of the problems surrounding shark fisheries, and dispel the myths surrounding these
animals. Currently, we are attempting to expand our efforts to include the production of many new
elements such as educational brochures, a newsletter, a book on local species of sharks, and even a
site for information on the Internet.
PSRF welcomes ideas from any interested parties. Please contact either Sean Van Sommeran or
Callaghan Fritz-Cope at the number listed below.
|Sean Van Sommeran