PALM BEACH, Fla. – Off the coast of Palm Beach, aboard Calypso’s Miss Jackie, a small group of divers and I head out to sea to have an up-close encounter with one of the most misunderstood creatures of the ocean.
The apex predator, the shark.
“Really, populations of sharks there’s very few places on this whole planet where they are what they used to be,” said Stefanie Brendl.
She would know. She’s the founder of Shark Allies, a conservationist fighting for over a decade for laws and protections to save the world’s dwindling shark population.
“Anyone who loves the ocean, who wants to have a healthy environment, kinda needs sharks,” she said.
Feared and unfairly maligned as the villains of the sea, it is the shark that is actually in charge of keeping our oceans healthy. They are the doctors of the sea, keeping fish populations healthy by eating the slow, the sick and the weak — preventing diseases from becoming ocean pandemics.
Without sharks, the entire marine ecosystem would collapse.
“It doesn’t matter whether you like them or you hate them, it’s irrelevant — they’re just important for the system,” Brendl said.
And yet we continue to decimate them worldwide, killing upwards of 73 million sharks a year.
They evolved over 400 million years ago and survived five mass extinctions, only to face their greatest threat right now: us. Every day, millions of sharks are being harvested, primarily for their fins.
It is the global fin trade that primarily drives the slaughter. Even though “finning” live sharks is no longer legal in the United States, shark fins continue to be bought and sold here.
“If anyone thinks that that’s sustainable, that’s insanity,” Brendl said. “Every country participates in the fin industry, whether they’re supplying the sharks, or whether they’re trading the fins or just enabling the trade to come through the state.”
Last year, Florida became the 14th state to ban the trade of shark fins, but a loophole still allows shark fishermen with valid permits to sell and export them here.
“There are not that many sharks,” said Luis Roman of Calypso Dive Charters out of Riviera Beach. “People think that there are a lot of them, but in reality, there are maybe about 20 of them in a pod.”
Roman has been diving these waters for over 10 years. Calypso Dive Charters specializes in giving people from all over the world a cage-free shark dive experience.
“You used to be able to dive with three or four tiger sharks at once,” he said. “Now we only see one or two.”
Over the years Roman has personally witnessed the decline in the number of sharks migrating through these waters, and he’s worried about what this will mean for Florida’s essential eco-tourism business.
He’s on a mission to wake people up.
“We want to change minds. We want to be able to see how gracious these animals are,” Roman said. “They’re not these man-eating machines. In reality, they are more scared of people than people are scared of them.”
The fact is, it’s not the shark who is the man-eater but man who is the shark-eater. On average there are only 140 shark bite incidents a year worldwide, and less than six are fatal.
J Mac is a videographer who flies his drone almost daily over the shores of South Beach. He captures incredible images and videos of humans in the ocean, oblivious to the fact that they’re swimming with sharks.
“They’re here. This is their ocean,” he said. “For the most part, when there’s a shark in the water and there’s a human kind of getting close to each other, the shark notices them first and takes off the other way.”
On this day when Local 10 News joined Calypso Dive Charters, it took four dives and four hours to finally find our first shark, a lone sandbar shark.
Severely overfished and prized for their huge fins, the species is now protected in state and federal waters.
Even more striking, there were no fish.
“We should be seeing tons of life even in the water column,” said scuba instructor Rayna O’Nan. “We should be seeing tons of fish from jack to bonita to blue runners and we really didn’t see much today.”
No fish, no sharks. An omen of what’s to come, or a warning sign of what we stand to lose if we don’t act urgently to save them now?
“This is an issue for everyone,” Brendl said. “Because the ocean belongs to everyone and no one, but we all depend on it. We all depend on the planet and the planet is 70% ocean, so it’s in our best interest for many many reasons to save sharks.”
Maybe the third time is the charm. After two attempts last June, the U.S. Senate has passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, banning the trade of shark fins and products containing shark fins. That bill will now head to the House, where both chambers will negotiate the final form of the package.
To sign an Oceana petition to encourage Congress to pass the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, click here.
To follow Shark Allies, click here.
For more info on Calypso Dive Charters, click here.