In this blog we have talked about sharks on several occasions, but now we interview Mónica Alonso, a member of Alianza Tiburones Canarias (Canarias Shark Alliance). Although she is an engineer, she has been taking courses on marine biology and elasmobranchs for over 15 years; which have motivated her to create the blog Protejamos las maravillas del mar.
Mónica, thank you very much for the interview and for sharing your knowledge and experience about sharks. Being engineer, how did your interest on sharks arise?
More than 15 years ago, I started to dive, and immediately, I was interested in marine environment, of which I unknown almost everything. I did some courses on marine biology and I was passionate for it.
Studding sharks, I realised that they are fascinating, and above all when I started to be conscious about the precarious conservation state of most of the species due to finning and abusive fishing.
You are the content and communication director of Alianza Tiburones Canarias. What is it? Why is it based on Canary Islands?
Advancing in my interest in elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), I was learning more about them, more I realized that in the Canary Islands there is a treasure: the angelshark (Squatina squatina), a shark belonging to one of the most threatened families from all sharks, whose species is declared by the IUCN as critically endangered, one step away from extinction.
The Alliance for the sharks of Canary Islands is an association of people concerned about the Canary marine environment, and especially elasmobranchs that live there, and in particular the state of conservation of angelshark.
At present, we have not yet managed to stop the fishing of angelshark, despite being prohibited and the level of critical threat to the species, but at least we got from the Canary Government an “educational” measure. We believe that tourists who hire the services of these companies do not know that capturing an angelshark contributes to their extinction (although freeing it after suffering serious damage), or that is forbidden. Therefore, it is mandatory that these companies clearly exhibit a sign with elasmobranchs which can not be fished.
Our association is not interested in confronting these companies, but to collaborate with them in educational tasks.
Which is the mission of the Alliance?
The “vision”, as a long-term goal, of our association is to make the Canary Islands a dive’s paradise with elasmobranchs. Over the short term, our “mission” is the promotion, dissemination and the environmental education and conservation of the Canary marine biodiversity, with special emphasis on elasmobranchs.
Therefore, my colleagues in the Canaries and the team of Madrid are dedicated to change the bad image of sharks, and to participate in everything related to their protection.
Which activities do you do for shark conservation?
Canary Islands is precisely where we do most of the activities. My companions who live there are constantly moving throughout the islands, giving educational talks in schools, universities, fishermen’s associations, diver forums participating in fairs biodiversity, solidarity markets … A massive outreach and education focused particularly in younger people, which we believe is slowly paying off.
Through social networks, we receive a lot of information about shark sightings by divers. Our Facebook page shows every week pictures of angelsharks and other elasmobranchs, done by divers, who give us details of the spotted animal: its size, sex, depth of sighting, place (not published to avoid poachers), and other data relevant to the statistical study we are doing.
Now that we know a little more about the Alliance, I would like to know if there are so many species of sharks and rays in Spanish waters, since most people think we do not have these animals on our shores.
Spain has many kilometers of coastline, both Mediterranean and Atlantic. Both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic are home to many species of sharks. So, we must eradicate that idea. About the number of species, some reports expose that in the Mediterranean Sea there are 90 species of sharks. And the Atlantic Ocean is home to many more.
I think divers know that there are sharks in all seas and oceans, but it is very rare to meet anyone, especially because they detect us before we do. And because each time there are fewer, due to overfishing and finning.
Ninety species in the Mediterranean are a lot … What role do sharks play in marine ecosystems?
There are over 500 species of sharks worldwide, with varied shapes, sizes, lifestyles …, so in general it cannot be generalized for the whole group what we are goint to say. We have the largest of all fishes, the whale shark, which feeds on plankton, and conversely, small sharks as predators that work at its level.
Overall, sharks are apex predators that are at the top of the food chain. Therefore, they play an important role in the ocean ecosystem, maintaining ecological balance. In general, they act as scavengers helping to eliminate dead animals, thus preventing the spreading of disease and strengthening the genetic makeup of prey populations. As predators, they help to maintain the levels of individuals in the lower level of the marine food chain.
Despite their importance, I am sure that they are threatened. Which are their main threats?
The biggest threats, according to FAO, are overfishing and finning.
For those who do not know the term finning, I must say that shark fins are very valuable (about 20 €/kg), much more than meat (between 1 and 2 € per kg). The reason is that shark fins are an ingredient in a traditional dish, the shark fin soup, a deli, which can cost almost 100€ each soup. The rapid growth of the middle class in China has caused the price of kilo to increase in the international market. So, ships prefer to store more fins than meat. Therefore, shark fins are cut and the dying animal is returned to the water; as shown in this video:
This macabre activity is prohibited in many parts of the world, but not in all places. In the European Union, it has been banned since 2003, but the regulation was adopted allowing certain unloading of fins with a permit. The fleets of Spain and Portugal, European fishing powers, used this exception in the law, supported by the Spanish and Portuguese governments.
Is this exception still being used to unload fins without their body?
A few years ago, there was an European movement to eliminate the exception of this law, and numerous conservation organizations and governments in many European countries banded together to approve the measure of “fins attached”, ie, when fishing a shark, fishermen cannot disembark body and fins separately. This is a measure that has been very successful in order to eradicate finning in many areas of the world. The new European antifinning law was passed in 2012 and came into force in 2013, with the measure of “fins attached” applicable to international EU waters and all European vessels worldwide.
This does not mean that catch sharks is illegal, and even sell their fins in a global market that is very opaque and generates many benefits to many countries, among which is ours.
Which role does Spain play?
In Spain, many sharks are caught, and the most fished species is undoubtedly the blue shark. The Port of Vigo, the largest fishing harbour in Europe, is the only one in which fishing statistics are published each year, detailing the species. By 2014, nearly 10,000 tons of sharks of all kinds were unloaded. The shark meat in Galicia, called Quenlla or Caella, is being increased its consumption, mainly by the campaign that the big fishing companies are doing. And it is very easy to see that the blue shark is sold fresh or frozen in the main Spanish supermarkets.
Seeing everything, I image that sharks are not very protected. Is that right?
Unfortunately, in Spain and in the rest of the world, the level of protection of sharks is very low.
The oceans are unfortunately an area very unprotected. Maybe it is because much of its surface has no owner, so-called international waters.
In Spain, and in Europe, there are a number of species for which it is forbidden, not only its fishing, but even upload them to the ship to remove the hooks and return them to the sea. That is the case of angelshark, the bigeye thresher, the hammerhead, the basking shark, the white, the porbeagle and some rays.
Since last year, there have been protected new shark species in Spain, but only in the area of the Mediterranean: the school shark, the shortfin mako shark and the porbeagle, and several species of rays, such as the guitar fish. This means that if we find school shark in a menu from a bar, it is only illegal if it has been caught in the Mediterranean, but we will never know, as consumers, if the animal comes from the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. The best thing in this case is not to eat.
So, is there some illegal product?
Shark fins are not illegal in our country if they come from unprotected species, such as blue shark.
At the international level, it is only prohibited trade with hammers’ fins, whale shark‘s fins, white’s fins, porbeagle’s fins, basking shark’s fins and longimanus’s fins (and some rays). This is the real drama: the fin market is not illegal, but for many of us is immoral.
There is an international movement called Fin Free, in which some cities have added, and in them the sale and consumption of fins is not allowed.
I do understand; is really complicated everything. Moving on… We have all seen plenty of movies in which the shark is bad, the murderer. Is it reality or fiction?
It is quite true that cinema has done much harm to the conservation of sharks since all, until you begin to learn things, have experienced fear even in the same word shark.
However, more and more divers dive with them and have no problems. There are many ways to dive with sharks and only a group of more aggressive by nature species are subject to special precautions, such as the white, the tiger or the bull sharks. What is clear is that we are not on their menu.
Accidents with these animals, although of great importance on media are very few compared to those who die, for example, against attacks of hippos and crocodiles.
Given its importance and degree of threat, what can society do to save these species?
The truth is that a lot. The simple fact of knowing the situation helps a lot, because what happens is that the general population, and even governments, are unaware of many of the things we have talked today. Certainly, greater awareness and public pressure are the best weapons to get governments to act.
Moreover, do not buy the products we have mentioned and be part of all the opportunities for citizen participation in law-making as possible. Antifinning current law is the result of pressure from many European conservation groups, which could be heard and through which regulatory initiatives were established.
Thank you very much for your time. I’m sure our readers will appreciate all this knowledge that you have given us.