Over the years, films have portrayed sharks as the villains of the ocean. Cold blooded killers accompanied by ominous music which replays in our mind every time we dip a toe in the sea on holiday. In 1975, it only took John Williams a tuba, four trombones, six double-basses, and eight cellos to petrify audiences ever since and, along with Steven Spielberg, define a generation's relationship with these teethy ocean dwellers.
Since then, these aquatic creatures have been the focus of many Hollywood blockbusters with fearsome film depictions, such as Deep Blue Sea, The Meg, and dare I even say it…Sharknado and it’s FIVE sequels. Of course, TV hasn’t missed out either with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week reeling in over 27 million viewers in 2020, making it cable’s top network during that week. But just as many film and TV franchises are rebooting for the modern era, it’s time we do the same for our sharks or risk losing these iconic species forever.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the obsession with sharks. They are seriously impressive animals. Sharks have been swimming in our ocean for over 400 million years - long before dinosaurs walked the earth. Apex predators with razor sharp teeth, a killer sense of smell, and can even tap into electrical fields to detect their prey. They can also be enormous. Britain’s own Basking Shark can grow up to 11 metres long and weigh up to 7 tonnes - the size and weight of a double-decker bus!
But as daunting as those facts are, instead of fearing sharks, we should be much more terrified of a world without them. With our ocean covering 71% of the earth’s surface, sharks play an important role in its ecosystem. Occupying the upper tiers of many food chains, sharks have an impact on all levels below them, such as regulating species abundance, distribution, and diversity.
Some sharks are even having an impact on climate change. The fearful presence of Tiger Sharks in Western Australia has been documented to cause dugongs and sea turtles to limit how much seagrass they eat. By preventing overgrazing, these carbon absorbing habitats can continue to take in CO2 and mitigate climate change.
In addition to their ecological role, sharks also have an important economic value for many local economies. As people around the world recognise their beauty and importance, they are seeking out experiences with sharks such as diving and snorkelling. Shark ecotourism is therefore a growing industry generating more than £314 million a year and directly supporting over 10,000 jobs.
But the future of these ocean superstars is threatened by scenes far more horrifying than any film I mentioned above. Across the ocean an estimated 75 million sharks are brutally killed each year for their fins. As a key ingredient in shark-fin soup, a Chinese status dish, the demand for shark fins has rocketed and pushed many species to the brink of extinction.
To meet this demand and increase profitability, fishing vessels turn to shark finning. This barbaric practice involves cutting off a shark’s fins while it’s alive and throwing the rest of the animal back into the ocean, where it dies from suffocation, blood loss, or being eaten alive.
Shark finning has thankfully been banned in the UK for nearly 20 years, yet we continue to contribute to this horrific practice by allowing imports of shark fin products.
Currently, anyone can bring in 20kg of shark fins to the UK for “personal consumption” without the need to declare it. This means the fins of endangered species regularly pass through the UK’s borders without the bat of an eyelid. Representing a value of around £4,000, the 20kg loophole also allows huge profits to be made from shark finning while avoiding taxation.
Having delivered Brexit, an independent UK now has the opportunity to become the first country in Europe to ban the shark fin trade. By ending the retained EU personal import allowance, we can meet our commitment to raise animal welfare standards and build on our global leadership in marine conservation.
In December 2020, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took the encouraging step to call for evidence on the shark fin trade and the possible impacts of stricter controls. By taking bold action with the results gathered, the government can make sure this barbaric practice has no place in the UK and that we lead on protecting the world’s sharks.