IF Earth’s forests are as its lungs, then the waters are its lifeblood and the inhabitants therein, the cells that labour to help sustain the planet.
Sharks are one of these ‘cells’ and like many creatures of the deep blue territories yet to be fully explored, and have outlived the dinosaurs and survived cataclysmic events in Earth’s history, only to succumb within a century to fledgling man’s endless appetite.
Environmentalists around the world have for some time focused on the plight of sharks and right here in Trinidad and Tobago, a small state with a surprisingly big connection to the decline of these ancient predators, local group Papa Bois Conservation (PBC) has taken up the fight.
Two Sundays ago the group launched a multi-year campaign that seeks to make T&T a shark sanctuary and implement a ban on the export and landing of shark products from local shores.
The launch was at the Maracas turn-off on the North Coast Road with a hands-on approach, the sharing leaflets to passing cars and the pinning of large, shark-shaped plywood signs bearing the troubling facts along the stretch.
Sharks form part of the balance and with numbers falling rapidly, environmentalists fear that the ‘tipping point’, the point at which the balance tips out of the favour of a healthy ocean, is not far away.
Given T&T’s role in the worldwide shark fin trade, Papa Bois Conservation believes that the reversal could start as simply as with a national decision to accept alternatives to the beloved bake and shark.
Through a failure to establish international best-practice in some of its fishing ports, this country has unwittingly become a shark fin ‘factory’.
Trinidad is currently the world’s sixth largest supplier to Hong Kong, where shark fin soup and related ‘delicacies’ are as culturally dear as is bake and shark to T&T.
The fins comes mostly from sharks caught as by-product by Asian long-liners that trawl the Atlantic in fleets, bring their catch to some of Trinidad’s north-based ports and then export to Hong Kong.
The sharks are sometimes finned and discarded at sea, where they die slowly.
Checks in 2011 showed this country had exported as much as 332,396 kilogrammes (732,808 pounds) of shark fin annually to the Asian city.
An estimated 273 million sharks are killed annually with about 100 million of that are harvested for their fins.
“As a small country we can make an import contribution towards the global survival of sharks by banning the trade in shark products,” de Verteuil said.
“The foreign-owned longliners may then seek out another country as their willing, or unknowing , as we were, accomplice but at least we will have helped close the noose on this destructive trade.
“We will be one step closer to being able to view our country and ourselves as having a positive impact on the world environment.”
Limited bans on the products are emerging in China, such as in meals served at State functions but this was imposed primarily to curb extravagance and not so much to protect sharks.
De Verteuil noted that lionfish is a tasty alternative to shark in one’s bake. With a flavour like the grouper or snapper, it can be consumed abundantly with only a positive impact on the environment.
How have Trinis reacted to being asked give up bake and shark?
“The public reaction had been one of surprise, sometimes a bit of anger, but generally one of acceptance and understanding,” de Verteuil said.
“At first people are offended at the thought of losing their beloved bake and shark. It is a national dish after all, albeit an unsustainable one. Trinidadians are like people anywhere else in the world: they want to do the right thing when they know what that is. When we explain that sharks are in trouble globally, that they are vulnerable to overfishing because they mature slowly, have long gestation periods and few offspring and that according to International Union of Conservation Networks (IUCN), 25 per cent of sharks are threatened with extinction, people tell us they didn’t know that before.
“Creating awareness is an important first step to causing positive change. We’ve already had people come back to us to tell us how they substituted shark in their bake with something else like flying fish or cheese.”
The irony of replacing shark with lionfish in a bake does not escape. The steady disappearance of reef sharks and the rapid rise of lionfish in Tobago’s waters could soon place a new burden on the island’s economy that won’t be solved by quick-fix international funding.
The Buccoo Reef, boasted about in every tourist brochure to come out of the island, is fast losing its vibrancy to pollution and destruction by visitors and now, the ‘citizens’ of this underwater city face eradication by the greedy and prolific lionfish, an invasive Pacific species likely unleashed on the West by careless private collectors.
Without reef sharks to take a bite out of the lionfish population, a healthy reef can be decimated in record time.
The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species lists 48 shark species in the western-central Atlantic, where Trinidad and Tobago sits.
Local waters were once heavily populated by at least five — Caribbean reef sharks, blue sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, threshers and hammerheads, which are all now threatened or near-threatened with extinction.
The concept of a sanctuary isn’t alien to the region. With the help of US-based environmental lobby PEW Charitable Trusts, which has also shown interest in the local campaign, a sanctuary was established in 2011 in The Bahamas.
The local lobby has found support within the Government and though it’s too soon to pronounce, Environment and Water Resources Minister, Ganga Singh, said:
“I am supportive of efforts to ensure that there is shark conservation of the shark species in our environment. In this regard, I wish to commend Papa Bois Conservation (PBC) on their initiative.”
De Verteuil said the campaign is a multi-year effort that will utilise traditional and social media.
“We will implement an outreach programme for schools, so children will become future ambassadors for shark conservation,” he said.
“We will continue to place our signs in unexpected locations and show up with volunteers to hand out shark conservation facts and figures to the public.”
The group will also conduct “citizen science surveys” to help establish a baseline for sharks in local waters. “We seek to work together with stakeholders, including fishers and shark retailers, to establish a shark sanctuary in TT waters, offering sharks complete protection,” de Verteuil said.