I recall from my first filming trip abroad over 45 years ago, people telling me that weather conditions were very unseasonal and how unusual it was that animal behaviour was becoming more uncharacteristic each season, as well as that species numbers were on the decline.
For the first few years of my travels I must confess not to taking much notice, but then as the years unfolded I began to realise this was a global trend that was not getting better.
Over the following years I met many scientists and biologists who were dedicated to their particular field of wildlife and environmental research but I was saddened to learn just how focussed they had to be on their own particular niche rather than having time to think of the bigger picture and the overall global problems and influences. This was because in order to secure future funding, they had to be able to produce a constant stream of worthwhile results. They had to justify their work and sadly there was no one I encountered who was responsible for coordinating all this individual information to try and assess global trends and issues.
Throughout my wildlife filming career I have seen copious quantities of information accumulated about individual species, all in order to better understand what is happening to our world by processing reams of carefully gathered data.
So what has this to do with shark tagging? Well, much of the research I have watched over the years has had to do with shark behaviour, feeding patterns, distribution, reproduction and, of course, mortality after being caught and released. The stress of fighting for life isn’t so prevalent with other species. A bird caught in a mist net or an elephant tranquilized, although distressing, doesn’t seem to compare with a long drawn out battle on the end of a fishing line, where the animal is fighting with all its strength and resolve until it has nothing more to give.
There is a plethora of opinion and data about shark mortality post catch and release which makes it difficult to discern reality from emotion.
Sharks have been pushed to the edge of extinction by over fishing, both commercial and sport.
In recent years, biologists have come to discover that catch and release is harmful to sharks. They have documented cases where sharks will swim away and die within a matter of minutes after fishermen release them. The life-and-death struggle to survive a battle with an angler far too often turns out lethal for the shark.
Sharks are crucial for the health of the ocean. As an apex predator, their continuing eradication threatens the health of the entire marine ecosystem. Although the figures may be small compared with long lining and other commercial fisheries, they are still significant. See www.leisurepro.com/blog/ocean-news/catch-release-harmful-sharks/
This post release mortality does vary between shark species with some being more resilient than others. Having been underwater, filming sharks on the hook fighting with every last ounce of their strength, I am personally amazed how any survive at all, especially when after this epic struggle they are hauled up onto a boat deck to have their photo taken.
I used to fish myself and seafood was always a good part of my diet, but as the years passed I began to witness stress and the frantic fight for life played out at the end of a fishing line. It is well accepted now that fish do feel pain. See www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/fish-feel-pain-180967764/. It is simply that we cannot hear any screams that make us impervious to their plight. See www.goodreads.com/book/show/7266864-do-fish-feel-pain
I have recently been passed a link to a Shark fishing competition to be held locally in Cornwall with the emphasis on tag and release. It led to me writing this article. Have we not gathered enough data now to be able to say ‘yes’, these animals are at the very edge of extiction and should be fully protected from all manner of sport and commercial fishery? Shall we continue to catalogue and study our wildlife right up to the point of its disappearance when we can say without any contradiction that our science knows exactly why this has happened.
I often stand on the cliff tops and look out at an empty ocean where only forty or so years ago I saw life in abundance. My children and grandchildren of course have no idea what I am talking about…