A big wave comes rolling in and crashes onto the rock ledge in front of us. It’s just on dusk at Tofo, a small village on the coast of Mozambique. “You know, this is one of the most extraordinary coastlines I’ve ever seen”, I say seriously to Anton.
I’m chilling with the lads who filmed Shiver, a ground-breaking documentary on shark finning. We’ve been thrashing around marine conservation issues for the last two hours, and it still seems like we’re just scratching the surface.
Anton has a long stick and is poking the small fire we’re sitting around. “Yeah this is an amazing place”, he says finally. “But not for much longer.” He points out along the coast where rows and rows of local fishing boats sit idle. “All those boats there…well tomorrow they’ll all be at sea catching sharks…” His voice trails off.
“You know I still struggle understanding this shark business. It seems everywhere I go these days, there is rampant shark finning and we’re all powerless to do anything about it.”
Anton frowns. “Well here’s what’s driving it. Ya got a billion Chinese all wanting to eat shark fin soup. Up until recently they never really mattered so much. They were poor. But suddenly the Chinese are the ones with all the money. And what they’re spending it on is shark fin soup.”
“Yeah well the problem is their dicks are all so small, and they need stuff like shark fin soup to kid themselves it’ll give them stiffies all night. When ya wedding tackle is so small I guess you’ll try anything to give ya missus the orgasms she’s been missing out on.”
Martin our sound recorder bursts out laughing. “haha,. Yeah xxxx them”, he says enthusiastically.
“Martin. You’re supposed to be recording our wise words here. Not contributing to them”, I say to him sternly. He continues to chuckle though, and adjusts his microphone that hangs between Anton and myself.
Anton finally breaks the amusement. “I’m not really sure why they all like it so much. I think it’s just a delicacy that used to be reserved for wealthy people’s weddings. But now Chinese all over the place can afford it. And the trouble for us is their demand is stuffing places like this.”
Mozambique typifies the shark fin problem. Chinese have moved in here and purchase the fins directly from local fishermen. When you’re poor and struggling to feed your family, and some little bow-legged man with chopsticks offers you $200 a kilo for your shark fin, of course you’ll take it. The trouble is this has skewed entire fishing industries. Where previously shark was a by-catch, now it has become the target species. Whole villages now see their fishing fleets dedicated to shark finning operations, and in many cases the fins are simply removed, and the carcasses then thrown overboard. 95% of the body mass is wasted. But more significantly for us, they have removed a key predator.
In recent times, certain groups have espoused the benefits of taking top predators. Namibia argues their seal cull is justified as it increases the number of fish available for human consumption. Similarly the Japanese claim that more whales should be taken because of their negative impact on our fisheries. Well these dodgy claims are now being proposed in support of shark finning. Fewer sharks mean more fish for us to eat. This jaundiced view however ignores the key role that predators play in an ecosystem.
Here’s the thing. The species these sharks (and also whales and seals) predate on are kept genetically strong. Sharks catch the weak, the slow, the mentally infirm, the sick, the uncoordinated…fish with slight defects end up inside the shark stomachs. The result is there is continual maintenance of the genetic strength and health of the species. Take away the sharks, and the species start to decline.
Man on the other hand does little to promote genetic strength. Consider a trawl net that sweeps through a school of fish. Survival is just a matter of chance…It has nothing to do with how fast, agile, strong or clever the fish is. It is simply a matter of location as the trawl net moves through.
The second consideration for predators is the removal of sick and diseased fish. Once predators are removed, diseased fish remain in their schools for longer, allowing the disease to spread further.
The result of all this? Well you take away the sharks and you’ll get long-term problems in the species beneath them in the food chain. Recently there have been a rash of reports from all over the world about large schools of fish turning up dead on beaches. Well I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts, that many of these areas have had rampant shark finning in recent years.
Of course some argue this is a good thing, as sharks kill humans. The fact remains however very few people die from shark attacks. In most years it is four people from all over the world. Apparently more people die from drink vending machines. Bozos tip the machines over when trying to sneak a free Coke and get crushed. Darwin’s laws in action I reckon. It averages five people per year. Maybe we should offer rewards for people who can catch these killer vending machines before they attack their next hapless victim?
I look up at Anton. Little flickers of light from the fire dance across his face. “This is now my home”, he says to me seriously. “This is one of the most amazing places on earth…And yet things like shark finning is destroying it in front of my eyes. In some ways I feel like our task is hopeless.”
He goes back to poking the fire, but his mood remains sombre. “Yeah well you guys are doing heaps. Your movie has done lots to promote the cause. You and many others are all working on this. We just gotta keep doing our best.”
“Permission to speak please”, Martin suddenly chips in. There’s an excited look on his face.
“What stoke of genius are you about to bestow upon us now”, I ask him mockingly.
A sly grin crosses Martin’s weathered face. “xxxx them bastards. Lets just bomb all of China. Problem solved.” He leans back in his chair with a contented look on his face.
“Thank you Martin for that most enlightened piece of wisdom.”