Saving the Ocean: Sharks in the Soup

Can we love reefs–and fish–without loving them to death? In episode four of “Saving the Ocean,” Carl Safina takes viewers to Belize to see the damage shark hunting is having on the coral reefs.

Follow Marine Biologist Carl Safina as he takes viewers around the world to show us how today’s ocean issues are being solved in his PBS series “Saving the Ocean.” You can watch full episodes online at the PBS website. Here at A/J he’s giving us a behind the scenes look at each episode.

Follow Marine Biologist Carl Safina as he takes viewers around the world to show us how today’s ocean issues are being solved in his PBS series “Saving the Ocean.” You can watch full episodes online at the PBS website. Here at A/J he’s giving us a behind the scenes look at each episode.

Three huge cruise ships stand outside Belize City. Of the thousands of people on board, most will enjoy some locally caught fish or lobster. Can we love the reefs without loving them to death?

The fish market has fishermen offering jacks, groupers (a few), small Yellowtail snappers (lots), sharks (most very small, just pups), and a few other smallish reef fish. The largest fish in the market is a juvenile Goliath Grouper weighing about 50 pounds (unmolested, they exceed 500 pounds). A decade ago the market had no sharks. Now fishermen bring all sharks to market.

Shark fins are used by the Chinese community here, and some are exported all the way to China, for making “shark fin soup.” The soup itself is just chicken or beef stock. The fins add no flavor. The cartilaginous fin-rays that stiffen the sharks’ fins are all that is of value. They thicken the soup. But flour makes a better thickener. Fins fetch $40 to $50 a pound, an astronomical sum around here. This drives the fishing, as it drives shark fishing worldwide now. It has driven sharks to depletion in many places.

A rather rough, rather wet, rather long ride gets us to Glover’s Reef, an ocean atoll rising from the deep seafloor 20 miles outside the barrier reef. It’s 20 miles long and 7 miles wide with four small islands. Middle Key, the one we’re on, hosts a scientific station managed by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Like all atolls, it’s a ring of coral reef whose central lagoon is full of small, picturesque “patch reefs.”

The waving palms, turquoise shallows, emerald mangrove shoreline, and fringing reef appear intensely beautiful. Outside that wave-breaking necklace of reef, the ocean plunges indigo deep.

We’re here to see what happens when a place is protected from certain kinds of fishing. Nets are verboten on the whole atoll, and a big pie-slice section is closed to all removal of marine life. The seafloor, about sixty feet, is covered with big barrel sponges and soft corals waving gently in the easy-flowing current. The place is bang-on gorgeous. Schools of small and medium fishes are evident everywhere.

So far only about one percent of Belize’s barrier reef is fully protected. But inside those few reserves the results are so dramatic – there are so many more conch, lobster, and big fish – that conservation workers hope to get more reserves established, at an accelerating pace. Of course, “It’s a race against time.”

Here at Glover’s, Demian Chapman’s decade-long study of sharks on the reef is showing that the reserve is working for Nurse Sharks and Caribbean Reef Sharks – because these sharks seldom leave the protected area.

Around the reef, the scientists have planted receivers. Inside the sharks, they’ve implanted transmitters. There are quite a few sharks here, and we have no difficulty capturing several for the purpose of implanting transmitters. Each transmitter is the diameter of a pencil and about an inch long. It’ll go “beep” for 18 months. Each time the shark is in range of a receiver, the beep says, “I’m here.”

Turns out, when we look at Demian’s data, these sharks are homebodies. Most of the time they stick to only one part of the atoll, going off to deep water during daylight, coming into the shallows at night. The pings recorded by the receiver tell a story of individual sharks spending much of their time in quite small parts of the reef, with occasional excursions around the atoll.

What would happen if they wandered in and out a lot? “They’d be goners,” says Demian. “They’d be those pups we saw in the fish market because, basically, where gillnets are allowed, they pretty quickly catch nearly all the sharks.”

Is the difference really so stark? We arrange to meet some fishermen about 20 miles away. Three raggedly dressed men hail us from their small open single-engine boat. Expecting us, they’re waiting patiently with their net. They set it last night and it’s been in the water 10 hours. Marked by floats, the net stretches half a kilometer. Any swimming thing bigger than about eight inches long will have been arrested by all the mesh.

The head fisherman has been pulling on nets like this for three decades. He has seen the catch go, he says, “very down.” He blames increasing competition. But he insists the number of fish in the water, and number being caught, remain the same as always.

And then comes the shock: the whole net contains: not one fish. Zero. Ten hours, 500 yards of netting – not a single fish. I don’t see too much competition for the same catch–I see no catch and the writing on the wall for these fishermen. And for their children, the ink is set, and it says, “No future–unless…”

We’ve seen the one hope for the future at Glover’s Reef. It’s an area where nets are banned and a smaller area where no fishing of any kind is allowed. This is not anti-fishing; it’s just reality. You can’t sell goods if you have only stores and no factories. Glover’s Reef is one factory. And these fishermen need a lot more of them. Otherwise, we can kiss the fish, and the fishermen, goodbye.

But with some of area set aside, the reefs and their fish could survive. If we let fish recover, we let fishing thrive. We’ve glimpsed two versions of the future. They’re ours to choose.

Read the next post: Bringing Salmon Back


Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University’s Center for Communicating Science. He has authored 6 books and roughly 200 scientific and popular publications, including features in The New York Times, and National Geographic and a new Foreword to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. He hosts Saving The Ocean on PBS television.