Sharks are not only one of the world’s most fascinating and deadliest creatures, but they are also among the most endangered ones. The fishing industry is killing more than 100 million sharks each year. If this trend is about to continue, it will lead to the extinction of some shark species.
Fortunately, nonprofit organizations like Shark Allies are fighting against the overfishing of sharks and rays. In 2010, the organizational founder, Stefanie Brendl, worked with Hawaii State Senator Clayton Hee to bring to passage the first shark fin trade ban in the world.
I asked Stefanie Brendl a couple of questions about her mission, the current state of the shark hunting industry and her future plans.
ReadingSavesLives: Why and how did you start Shark Allies? Can you tell us about the early days of this project?
Stefanie Brendl: I started Shark Allies in 2007 in Hawaii. I was diving with sharks every day for my dive business Hawaii Shark Encounters and realized that there was much to be done for the conservation and protection of sharks.
In the early days I focused on education during trips and by visiting schools to give presentations. It quickly became clear that research and education alone is not enough to help sharks. Much of shark conservation takes place in government buildings, so I decided to get myself educated on policy and advocacy.
RsL: What or who are the biggest threats to sharks? (Specific group, organization, pollution, …)
Brendl: The biggest damage is done by the commercial fishing industry, and in some locations also the recreational fishers. The market for fins, meat, squalene and other products – this includes targeted fishing, bycatch or unintended/accidental catch, creates the incentive to keep taking sharks. Also general overfishing and degradation of reefs creates a loss of habitat. If there are no fish, there will be no sharks.
RsL: What setbacks and successes have you experienced since the founding of Shark Allies?
Brendl: We have had lots of successes. The Hawaii shark fin bill was the first of its kind and set in motion a wave of similar laws across the Pacific and the United States. We haven’t had any major setbacks, but mostly just tedious delays, such as when the Florida bill needed to be reintroduced in the second year. Other limitations are usually directly related to not being able to raise funds. There is an unlimited amount of work to be done, and we have strategies for many campaigns, but it would require a much bigger work force to tackle it all.
RsL: Can you talk a little bit about the Hawaii bill of 2010 to ban shark fin trading?
Brendl: Rather than legislating the act of finning, which is very difficult to enforce, the Hawaii bill tackled the issue with a different approach – to deal with the product, the shark fins, and the trade of the product, rather than making more fishing rules or arguing animal cruelty. Making shark fins essentially contraband, and therefore making the law highly enforceable.
We had no idea that we would actually succeed. The initial intention was to move things as far along as possible, and then build on whatever ground we had gained, but to our great surprise, the bill gained more and more support and we got it passed.
RsL: What is the current state of the shark finning industry?
Brendl: While the consumption of shark fin soup has gone down by a high degree in China and Hong Kong, it has gone up in many other Asian countries. The demand in the US used to be quite high (mostly in cities), but this has been curbed by the State fin bans. The international trade of fins is not being dealt with so the traders continue to find new avenues to transport and sell shark fins. Many countries are also reluctant to put more effective measures into place because of the fear of economic losses to fishermen, or due to corruption. Shark fishing continues at an unsustainable rate around the world.
RsL: Sharks are known for their rather negative reputation unlike dolphins and whales. Do you think their threatening demeanor makes it more difficult for you to convince people to fight for their protection?
Brendl: Sometimes. More and more people are understanding that natural balance is important. While they may not like sharks, they don’t necessarily want to get rid of them anymore. Much has changed in the last 20 years. The support for shark conservation doesn’t come from the public, it comes from government agencies, NGOs, donors etc., so whether the negative public image has an impact is at this point disputable.
It’s a lack of government action to protect species, get rid of harmful fisheries and their subsidies and the lack of funding available for shark conservation and advocacy.
In the nations where most sharks are consumed in products such as shark fin soup, the lack of protection is not due to fear of sharks or because of a negative image. It’s because the soup is a status symbol.
The energy for shark conservation projects is constantly drained because most donors have their favorite animals or they are now focusing on Climate change issues or other charities.
RsL: What are some facts about sharks that could change people’s opinion about them in a positive way?
Brendl: There are many. You can find those on our website. Most importantly is the fact that, whether you like them or not, sharks are important to our ocean’s health. So if you would like to have healthy fish populations, reefs, food security in the future and a functioning ocean world, you have to support sharks.
RsL: You started a charity campaign for your organization via Streamlabs Charity. What made you decide to use a streaming platform for your nonprofit and what has been your experience so far?
Brendl: I don’t know too much about it, but one member contacted me and suggested I should set up a charity profile so he can fundraise. So far we have had only a few small fundraisers.
RsL: How else do you finance your endeavors?
Brendl: Events, donations, merchandise sales, grants.
RsL: What are Shark Allies’ plans for the future? What can we expect?
Brendl: We continue to work on the 4 pillars as outlined on the site:
1. Overfishing and the fin trade
2. Shark Products (squalene in Vaccines and cosmetics, shark meat, souvenirs etc)
3. Protection the habitat (MPAs, Shark Sanctuaries, Policy)
4. Changing the way we value sharks (Entertainment industry, media, tourism)
Plus all the awareness and education that goes along with each campaign.
RsL: Thank you very much for your answers!