PUBLISHED ON: 8 June 2011
June 8th is World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate the natural wonders of the earth's vast underwater world. These oceans are the place where life on earth originated and still today it is home to an incredibly diverse web of life.
But this web is under immense pressure from human activities such as pollution and overfishing. Sharks are at the top of this web, but they are now balancing on the edge of extinction due to the enormous demand for a bowl of soup — shark fin soup.
Read our special World Oceans Day interview with shark defender and former world record holding free diver, Fred Buyle below and then take action to save our sharks.
Diving with sharksProfile
Name: Fred Buyle
Born: 1972, Belgium
Free diving career: started free diving when he was 8 in the Mediterranean Sea, held 3 world records and was the 8th person to break through the 100m mythical barrier on one breath of air
Occupation: underwater photographer, shark conservationist, free diving instructor
Fred, how did your passion for sharks develop?
Ever since I was a kid I liked the shape of sharks. But I was also fascinated by them because I always heard people say that sharks are dangerous. You know, I grew up with the Jaws movies and people from my generation have what I call the 'Jaws syndrome'. Because of these movies we think of sharks as killing machines designed to shred people to pieces. But I wanted to see with my own eyes what these creatures are like.
The first time I was in the water with sharks was in Indonesia when I was 13. They were reef sharks and of course my initial reaction was "wow they're dangerous, I might get bitten", but after a little while I realised that they were just swimming around and not really interested in me. I have since been nose to nose with great white sharks and literally bumped into big tiger sharks and I discovered that instead of being aggressive, they are actually very shy animals. This made me understand that the image we have of them is false.
You say that they are not aggressive. So what is normally the cause of a shark attack?
First of all I don't see it as 'attacks' as this implies deliberate aggression. Shark accidents normally happen to surfers or swimmers because they float on the surface and have no idea what's going on under the water. Therefore they have no interaction with the shark that might be observing them, which is an indication to the shark that the level of threat is low and it's safe to check 'it' — a potential feed — out from closer by. This normally involves a bite.
See, a shark will never take any risk to get food. They circle around a potential prey to gage it, to see how it reacts, if it's dangerous for him or not. If there is no response the shark thinks that it is safe. As a diver you establish contact with the shark. You let the shark know that you've seen it. And if you show no sign of fear the shark will understand that you're not a potential prey. Even a 5 meter great white will simply swim away.
With your passion for sharks, the shark finning business must really upset you.
The shark finning industry is very cruel and damaging. It only occurs because some people have the false idea that shark fins are good for them and because it's a traditional Asian dish. Most disturbing about shark finning is that the fishermen cut off the fins of the sharks whilst they are alive and dump its body back in the ocean. Without her fins, the injured shark is unable to swim and therefore unable to circulate water through her gills. She sinks to the ocean floor to either slowly suffocate or be eaten alive.
How many sharks are killed for their fins?
It is difficult to give an accurate figure but it will be at least one hundred million every year and estimates go as high as four hundred million each year. The result is that populations of shark species have declined enormously all around the world. I've seen a dramatic change during my free diving career. It has become more difficult to find sharks simply because there are a lot less around than 20 years ago.
WARNING: some scenes in this video may be distressing.
And this has a big impact on the health of our oceans, right?
Oh yes, the impact on the whole ocean eco system is enormous. If sharks, as apex predators, disappear, it disrupts the whole natural balance. For example in the East Pacific the hammerheads are disappearing. Hammerheads usually feed on squid, and squid on their turn eat small fish and larvae of fish. So with the squid population increasing due to a lack of sharks the number of smaller fish is dropping sharply and the whole system is at risk.
In your eyes, what is the solution?
The most important thing is to stop the demand. The market is mostly in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, so that's where the education needs to be done primarily. People need to be informed of the enormous cruelty and damage this industry is causing. That is the only way we can save the sharks. It is impossible to regulate the industry because most shark finning happens illegally and in international waters where there are no laws.
Some countries are banning shark fishing and finning in their
territorial waters, but there will always be poachers. Other countries,
and states in America, are making it illegal to sell shark fins, which
is a very positive step.
You are also very concerned about the damage caused by shark nets. As a diver, what have you seen?
Shark nets in Australia and other countries are installed to protect swimmers and surfers. Many animals get caught in the nets and die a slow death, but most of these animals are completely harmless. On studying the nets, it becomes clear that most of the animals actually get caught whilst they are trying to find a way out of the netted area. This means that they managed to get through in the first place, which shows that the nets are completely ineffective and the animals die for no reason. We have to accept that the waters are these animals' natural habitat, it's their territory not ours. It disturbs me deeply that we make the animals suffer again, needlessly.
Surfers are the most frequent victim of a shark incident, but 95% of surfers don't want shark nets as they know the damaging effects that they have. Most surfers really care about the environment and love the ocean with everything in it. They know that they're taking a risk, but they also know that most shark species are endangered and don't want to see them get hurt.
So how are you trying to help the sharks?
With my work I try to show people the true face of sharks. I hope that this helps to debunk the myth that they are dangerous animals. My photography and diving trips where William Winram and I take people into the water with sharks are aimed to open up this otherwise so invisible world to a broad audience to create awareness and make people want to save sharks from the crisis that they are currently in.
Free diving is perfect for this because you can be part of the underwater world in a completely natural way. Without the noise of scuba gear (due to breathing and air bubbles) you don't disturb the animals and they don't try to get away from you — in fact they even start to approach you out of curiosity — so you can observe their behaviour from closer by and for a longer period of time.
Do you feel that you are making progress?
Thankfully we are seeing things change slowly in a positive way. The film producers, camera men, journalists etc. that we are taking diving with sharks are becoming more interested in portraying sharks in a different light. They start to see a different potential for their work and with environmental issues now becoming more important, media portrayal of sharks is changing. This makes them a messenger for the conservation cause.
This is creating a tangible shift in attitudes which we notice when we give presentations. When presenting to younger people, they will often not think of sharks as being dangerous, but instead as animals that need protection because they have learned that sharks are being slaughtered for their fins and are becoming endangered.
So what can people do to help?
The most important thing is for people to learn about sharks. Everybody should go to see them in the water so they will understand these animals better and will be keener to protect them because, I know for sure, they will like them. Also, unfortunately shark fin soup is still widely available in Chinese restaurants in Australia, so people should make sure never to order this dish.
If you want to learn more about Fred's work, please visit his website.
You can help!
Shark fishing in Australia is
still legal and while there are laws regarding the finning of live
sharks, they are difficult to police. The only effective way to protect
sharks is to ban the sale of shark fins. You can help sharks by urging
Environment Minister Greg Hunt to ban the sale of shark fins in
Australia. Please send Minister Hunt a message
Are you inspired by Fred's story? Simple, every-day choices can have a dramatic impact on our precious oceans and the life they contain. Please share your comments below and let others know how you plan to help save our amazing marine animals!