By now, most of you have seen the sad images of the dead sharks found floating on the seabed in Xlendi. There has been a lot of social media uproar over the images, which is great. But as a person who studied the conservation of sharks in our waters the images are upsetting, sure, but they're not really that shocking.
In this day and age we are all somewhat aware of the fact that sharks are one of the most threatened groups of marine biodiversity. Over-exploitation coupled with the fact that sharks aren’t seen as being inherently cute and cuddly (pandas sure do get loads of attention don’t they?) has dramatically hindered their conservation efforts.
Photo of dead sharks on the Xlendi seabed taken by diver Tim Rose.
"While conducting research on fish catches, I'd see boxes piled with as many as 20 dead shark pups on any give day."
The protection of sharks has only recently become a global issue. Lack of adorable features aside, sharks also have specific features (such as low fertility rates and slow growth) which make them naturally vulnerable. Most Maltese people are usually surprised to learn that, yes, we do indeed have sharks in Malta. And no, they are not the violent, scary ones that will bite your foot off. Most of them don't even come close to growing big enough to manage.
The Mediterranean Sea is home to around 50 species of sharks, 37 of which can be found in Maltese waters. These include the Blue Shark, which is often spoken about, but also other species such as the Longnose Spurdog and Nursehound, which are much less known. To those, like myself, who love sharks their abundance in Maltese waters is amazing, but it's also pretty devastating for their numbers.
"Very few sharks are sold at the market. This is probably why so many are thrown overboard after being caught - no one wants to deal with peeling the thick skin off the smaller sharks to help them sell."
Most sharks in Malta are caught as bycatch. This means they weren't tracked and hunted down specifically, but rather accidentally ended up in nets with the species targeted by the fishermen. If a big shark is caught, and it's not one that's on the protected species list, it’s sold off at the fish market. Yes, people eat sharks... Mazzola anyone?
"Sharks aren’t seen as cute and cuddly [which] has dramatically hindered their conservation efforts."
The real problem arises when shark pups are caught. To the fishermen, they are seen as completely useless, and in most cases end up being thrown back into the sea. Those that aren't cast overboard are usually tossed aside while sorting through the day's catch, and piled up in crates.
The fishermen will try to sell these, but very few will be picked up by the hawkers. This is probably why so many are thrown overboard after being caught - no one wants to deal with peeling the thick skin off the smaller sharks to help them sell.
And that is the reason I am no longer shocked by the images of dead sharks. While conducting research on fish catches, I'd see boxes piled with as many as 20 dead shark pups on any give day. Some days would have more, others less - but there were very few days where I wouldn't see any dead sharks.
"What we need is comprehensive and legally binding plan of action for the conservation of sharks to be drafted."
But just because I'm not shocked, doesn't mean I'm not upset. Awareness is great, and the outcry we've seen on social media is a positive step forward. But it’s useless getting upset (and blindly pointing fingers at potential culprits) with no concrete plan of action set in motion to ensure the proper conservation of sharks.
What we need is comprehensive and legally binding plan of action for the conservation of sharks to be drafted.
How can you help?
Besides sharing those images with your angry sentiment attached it's important to know there are more practical things you can do. Sharklab-Malta, have been visiting the fish market and trying to save shark eggs from the dead, discarded females. Once they've harvested the eggs, they work with the Malta National Aquarium, to try and hatch as many shark pups as possible.
On July 23rd they released 65 sharks back into our seas, which brought their grand total of released sharks all the way up to 250!
Besides their work on the ground (for which they're always open to an extra helping hand), they're looking to continue their push towards stricter legislation and proper awareness with a paper they're hoping to present at a conference hosted by The Shark Trust in Bristol. You can help them achieve this by donating to their online fundraiser for this cause.