When I tell people that I’ve published a new book — “Demon Fish” — people have one of two reactions. They’re either completely freaked out, or they think I can save them from being eaten alive when they venture into the water.
(Update: Got a question about sharks for Juliet? Ask on Twitter using #Askthesharkexpert. She’ll answer one per day.)
Even when they get past those initial reactions, most people tend to focus on specific aspects of shark behavior, like, “Do sharks sleep?” (The quick answer is no, since most sharks have to keep moving constantly to pass water over their gills and get the oxygen they need.)
In fact, there is a broader question facing sharks this summer — and not just because “Shark Week” started airing Sunday night on the Discovery Channel. Countries across the globe have adopted a slew of measures aimed at protecting the creatures that have roamed the sea for nearly 400 million years, and have terrified humans for millennia.
On Tuesday a group of governments in Micronesia announced they had agreed to create the world’s largest shark sanctuary in the western Pacific Ocean, spanning more than 2 million square miles. To put it in perspective, that’s equivalent to two-thirds of the land mass of the continental United States.
The Federated States of Micronesia, along with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, announced Monday that they would start working on a regional sanctuary that would both ban shark fishing and prohibit the possession, sale and trade of shark fins on land.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong, who created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, said his country and others were committed to saving the ocean’s top predator.
“The world must rise with us to protect our oceans and our environment,” said Toribiong, who has urged other world leaders to follow his example. “That is the moral obligation of this generation for the benefit of the next.”
The leaders kicked off the process last week by passing a resolution at the 15th Micronesian Chief Executive Summit. Matt Rand, who directs global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said the fact that the issue has risen to such a high level in Micronesia shows that people are looking at sharks in a different way now.
“It says that their time has come, I hope, and sharks will get the protection they so desperately need,” Rand said in a phone interview.
The move is the latest example of how nations are taking steps to halt the fishing of sharks, which are increasingly under pressure because their fins are used to make shark’s fin soup, an Asian delicacy. In the past two months, both Honduras and the Bahamas have created shark sanctuaries.
Pacific islands are also seeking to curb the fin trade across their borders. Last month, the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, which is made up of lawmakers from across the Western and Central Pacific, asked all member nations to “adopt legislation for a unified regional ban prohibiting the possession, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distribution of shark fins, rays and ray parts.”
Still, vessels continue to target sharks even in some of the world’s best protected waters. Last month scientists documented how a fishing operation had captured and killed more than 370 sharks in Galapagos National Park despite a dedicated enforcement effort there. University of North Carolina marine biologist John Bruno, who sampled the sharks along with colleagues from Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Galapagos Science Center, described it as “a marine massacre.”
“The whole idea of a shark massacre shouldn’t be surprising to us,” said Scott Henderson, who heads Conservation International’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program and has lived and worked in the Galapagos for 20 years. “It happens every day, in every ocean, by almost every fishing nation, including the United States.”
But perhaps, the tide is beginning to turn.