Story and photo Melissa Hargraves
A swimming event in Lismore at the weekend helped raise awareness of the controversial practice of shark finning in Australia and overseas.
Fifty-six swimmers aged from five to 77 swam a total of 115.7kms in a ‘Finathon – swimming to end shark finning’ event.
Local dive master Kirin Apps, with the support of Summit Fitness and Health Centre in Goonellabah, held the event to raise funds and awareness about shark finning in Australia and beyond.
The event is a Project Aware Foundation initiative that ‘supports a global movement of divers acting in their own communities to protect oceans and implement lasting change.’
‘Project Aware is an offshoot of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI),’ Ms Apps told Echonetdaily.
‘Project Aware currently run campaigns against marine debris and shark finning and put out a call to all their dive masters and scuba diving instructors if they wanted to do a Finathon.
‘People all around the world are doing different things for Finathon, some are swimming around islands.
‘Summit let us have their pool for free and gave us support. So we decided to do a 12-hour relay style marathon swim which started at six this morning and will end at six tonight.’
Ms Apps completed a marine science degree and has recently completed her honours, researching grey nurse sharks at Byron Bay and South West Rocks and has been passionate about sharks since her childhood.
A healthy and abundant ocean depends on predators like sharks keeping ecosystems balanced, but according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) nearly one out of five shark species is classified as threatened with extinction.
‘Really this is about awareness,’ Ms Apps said, ‘some people have no idea just how critically endangered some sharks are and how big the issue of shark finning is.
‘Our target is to raise $1,000 but if one person realises what is going on then that is big enough.’
The results of live finning (where the fin is removed and the often still alive shark is discarded at sea) is not often seen in Australian waters, as most fisherman take the whole shark to land.
‘Although we did see a horrific local case in August 2012 where a critically endangered female grey nurse shark was found at Evans Head with her fins cut off, still breathing.
‘This happens in Asia and other countries. While we don’t see live finning a lot here, Australia is exporting and importing huge amounts of shark fins.’
Live shark finning at sea is banned in Australia, yet Australia imports shark products from some countries where this practice still occurs.
Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) was unable to obtain figures from Australian authorities on how much shark fin was imported into the country.
Hong Kong is one country we import from whose records showed figures of over 54 tonnes of shark fin to Australia over a 13-year period.
According to Turning the Tide, an AMCS publication, obtaining information on import and export figures was extremely difficult. Through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request they were able to identify Australia’s yearly export figures.
AMCS found that between June 2011 and July 2012 Australia exported 178 tonnes of shark fins, which would have come from around 13,300 tonnes of whole shark.
This figure is significantly higher than what is reported to the United Nations under international obligations.
Shark finning is a lucrative business. According to Ms Apps ‘the fins are worth anything up to $700 per kilo when they are dried and they don’t need refrigeration, where the meat is only worth 80 cents per kilo and needs refrigeration. So there is no incentive to keep the whole shark.
‘A single fin can get up to $1,000 in Sydney or Melbourne’s Chinatown.’
‘Traditionally shark fin soup was served to the Emperor in China and was for the very, very wealthy. As more of the Chinese reach middle-class they are trying to show their wealth by giving the shark fin to their guests in soup, particularly weddings and special occasions.
‘Apparently it doesn’t even taste nice. I was told just today that someone has been to a local Asian supermarket and bought some dumplings. They went home and read the ingredients and it had shark fin in it.’
Shark finning is the major threat to shark populations which do not have the capacity to recover as unfortunately sharks grow slowly and produce few young.
Other threats include over fishing, bycatch (incidental catches while fishing for other species) and loss of nursery grounds. Technology has also impacted on populations as fishermen can be directed straight to where the fish and sharks are.
Media and film have been blamed for the irrational fear that humans have of sharks.
‘Sharks are more afraid of me than I am of them,’ said Ms Apps. ‘Bull sharks in Thailand would come up to me inquisitively and when I breathed, my bubbles would hit them and they would turn and get out of there.
‘It is the same with the grey nurses here, they are placid and majestic. They have every right to be afraid, estimates say we are taking more than 100,000 sharks a year worldwide.
‘Statistics show there is more chance of dying from a bee sting, a dog, car accident or horse accident. We are inbred with this fear, especially from films such as Jaws which has been a huge obstacle to the conservation and management of these species.
‘The media also has a lot to answer for. The hype that goes along with it, like the way the media portrayed recent efforts with titles such as ‘The fight to save a man-eater’.
‘Here we are trying to save the endangered grey nurse shark and it is still called a man-eater in the title.
‘The language needs to be changed around sharks. People should take the opportunity to get in the water and dive with the sharks and really see them in their natural habitat.
‘We are absolutely privileged to have these critically endangered species on our coast and we need to protect them.’
At the time of publishing, the total funds raised from the event had not been calculated. If you would like to donate go to http://finathon.org/kirinapps of find out more information at http://www.projectaware.org/project/sharks-peril