WORDS by Chris Morrison
PHOTOGRAPHY by Ernst Stewart

The mere mention of the word ‘shark’ is often enough to conjure a sense of fear in the billions of folk who possess a phobia of them. But shark conservationist, Pat Kirkby, sheds some light on these misunderstood creatures and highlights the ways in which they continue to be misjudged and cruelly mistreated the world over. Pat’s passion for the environment, and particularly sharks, is truly contagious and as he chats about the plight of sharks, it’s hard to not be compelled to spread the word about their ill-fated situation.

 

The ocean has been a prominent background throughout Pat’s life, as he grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, where he relished in getting amongst its rugged coastline. From surfing to snorkeling, to bushwalking along the coast, Pat admits, “I’ve been pretty spoilt growing up around one of the most stunning temperate marine environments in the world”. I asked what prompted him to focus on shark conservation and he says, “From a young age I became fascinated by marine life, but sharks have always been at the forefront of my mind”. “I guess it’s a combination between a love for marine life, and a frustration that they are so misunderstood and misinterpreted. I work in marine education and constantly find myself bewildered by how paranoid and petrified everyday Australians are of sharks, as well as a lack of appreciation of why it’s so important that they’re preserved”. When Pat started researching sharks, he was shocked to the core about what he discovered, and has since been on a mission to protect and conserve these fascinating creatures. In light of recent controversial issue of shark culling, Pat is determined to raise awareness about the dire forecast of the shark’s existence. “Sharks are a harbinger and victim of the global overfishing crisis that has seen three quarters of all fish stocks overfished or on the brink of collapse.  Recent studies have found that around 90% of global large shark populations have already been depleted. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, 73 million of which are caught for their fins alone”. Pat reels off the facts like he has said this a million times before. He veers off on a tangent about shark finning, which is obviously a passionate subject for him. “Shark finning involves hooking sharks, hauling them on deck and slicing off their fins, often while they’re still alive. The maimed animals are then tossed overboard as waste, to drown or bleed to an agonising death”.

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“If a strong movement of people come together and boycott shark fishing, then we can lobby successfully to make shark finning illegal and well-regulated on a global scale”.

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“The practice is about as cruel as it is unnecessary. The fins are tasteless, with no nutritional or medicinal value. Despite this, the fins are used in epic proportions to make shark fin soup, a ‘delicacy’ that is seen as a symbol of status in Asian culture”. Pat tells me that the fins sell for as much as USD $500 per kilo. “Shark finning may be a multi-billion dollar industry, but it is also largely unmanaged, unchecked and unsustainable”, says Pat. The demand has risen dramatically as a result of China’s rising affluence, with Hong Kong at the centre of the global fin trade. In Hong Kong, 89% of people surveyed had eaten shark fin soup at a wedding banquet. Pat continues to say “What the Chinese don’t realise (or choose to ignore) is that shark meat is highly poisonous, due to its extremely high concentration of mercury and other toxins”.

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Thanks to AMCS (Australian Marine Conservation Society), shark finning is now illegal in Australia, however our fisheries continue to take hundreds of thousands of sharks every year, selling their carcasses on as ‘flake’ or as a low value waste product. Sharks are even being taken from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. From the tone in Pat’s voice, I can tell that he sees sharks as a crucial part of marine ecology. Pat goes on to explain why. “Sharks are vitally important apex predators, having maintained the balance of prey species and the marine food web for over 400 million years”. “They are crucial to the ecological resilience of the oceans, especially in the light of rapid human-driven climate change and ocean acidification”. What Pat is getting at is that the loss of sharks puts our marine ecosystems at serious risk of collapse, ultimately threatening the survival of mankind. Pat goes on to talk about why sharks are especially vulnerable. “They are slow-growing and late-maturing, producing very few young, which makes them exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from depletion”. But is it too late to save the sharks? Despite all odds Pat remains optimistic— quoting some of the successful campaigns run by his mates from organisations such as Sea Sheperd, AMCS, Save our Sharks, WildAid and Shark Alliance. “There is a small but powerful network of passionate ambassadors for shark conservation. Their numbers may be small, but their hearts are large and their voices are strong”. For anyone who is keen to contribute to conservation efforts, Pat explains some of the ways to get involved. “Jump on the net and join or donate to one of the shark conservation organisations. Boycott all shark products and unsustainable fisheries, spread the word and lobby for shark protection”.

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Pat believes the media and movies such as Jaws are responsible for shaping misconceptions about sharks, but he strives to illuminate the fact that sharks aren’t the bloodthirsty, man-eating killing machines, as they are constantly portrayed to be. In fact, Peter Benchley, the creator of Jaws was so overcome with guilt that he turned his life around and is now a leading shark conservationist! Of the 400+ species of sharks that exist, only around 10 of them have been known to ‘attack’ humans, and none of these species target humans as prey. This pertinent fact causes Pat to be extremely frustrated with shark culling advocates who rationalise killing sharks as a means to eradicate those who ‘have a taste of blood’ and are therefore likely to strike again. Pat claims that this suggestion is ludicrous and says that contrary to popular belief, sharks are unlike humans who pre-meditate reoffending—it’s simply not in their nature. “In fact, about 90% of shark attacks have been attributed to the shark confusing humans with their normal prey, and have been found to often spit or vomit up the human flesh”. Thus, shark fatalities are almost exclusively a result of blood loss, rather than being eaten.

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“I haven’t seen any shift in people’s personal opinions—there seems to be a degree of paranoia around sharks embedded in the human psychology.”

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The media is largely responsible for inciting mass hysteria, which means vital statistics such as these are blatantly overlooked. This factor was a driving force behind Pat’s mission to educate the masses. “I wanted to produce concise and accessible information about the plight of sharks to the public, so that everyone could learn the facts about the nature of sharks, and their highly endangered status. I figured that by citing credible scientific studies it meant a lot more than just trying to convince them of my personal opinions”. Trying to change people’s deep-rooted views towards sharks is no easy feat and Pat says “I haven’t seen any shift in people’s personal opinions—there seems to be a degree of paranoia around sharks embedded in the human psychology”. But this shift in general attitudes is integral to the ongoing conservation of sharks, as the future outlook for these creatures looks pretty dire at this point in time. “If you look at the figures, it’s a pretty daunting situation. The global overfishing crisis is driving these creatures to extinction, and unless there is a drastic change in the way that everyday people view sharks, then there is little hope that any efforts will be placed upon conserving and protecting them”. So if humans kill approximately 100 million sharks a year, how many humans are killed by sharks a year? Turns out its a miniscule 10 people worldwide every year, so in reality, sharks kill less people than falling vending machines, bathtubs, and choking on hot dogs. Take a Stance.

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