By Shawn Larkin
Many cultures with a maritime heritage seem surprisingly sympathetic about sharks to landlubbers who normally only take the time to fear them or eat them.
Those who come to know the ocean soon love sharks. From ancient Polynesians and Panamanians to the modern dive tribe, sharks and people get along really well together. The dive tribe first focused modern conservation attention on sharks long ago, and we continue to be sharks greatest champions, as most recently evidenced by reports from Colombia’s Mal Pelo Biological Reserve by Russian divers (TT, Oct. 14).
Sharks’ primal attraction stems from the fear evoked from an animal so powerful it could eat you, as well as being tasty meat you want to eat. But once you know sharks, respect and awe trump fear and hunger, most of the time.
Over decades of taking people to swim with sharks, I have seen many self-proclaimed “sharkophobes,” who upon seeing the dreaded object of their fears in the big blue, jump right in – with their children. What causes such a sudden shift in attitudes?
Education came first in the form of a dive briefing on how to get in the water relatively safely with big sharks. Then came a demonstration. Then curiosity takes over. Finally, holdouts succumb to peer pressure – or is it peers uneaten?
The reward seems to be the power to tell stories that trump nearly all others at dinner that night, as in: “You caught a big fish? You saw a sloth? You rode a zip line? We swam with sharks.” Another reward is the wisdom that may come from contemplating one of the most enduring and diverse evolutionary masterpieces produced by our blue planet.
Sharks have been around much, much longer than humans. Their design has been so successful that they have branched into more than 300 production models ranging from the rare little horn shark at Cocos Island National Park to the largest fish in the sea – whale sharks – whose only known birthing waters appear to be near the Osa Peninsula of the south Pacific coast.
Other famous Costa Rican sharks include: big schools of scalloped hammerheads; silky Galapagos; silver-tip sharks of Cocos; the bull sharks of Santa Rosa National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and of the river mouths of both coasts; the Pacific white tips of most famed Pacific dive sites; and the nurse sharks of the Caribbean reefs. Cocos Island is often called Isle of the Sharks or Shark Island.
Ironically, although decades ago divers at Cocos greatly helped launch the global changing of perception of sharks from negative to positive, Costa Rica is now much more famous as an enemy of sharks, as we sell them for profit garnered from the exotic tastes of wealthy foreigners. Shark fins for soup can be worth more than double the price of the next most-valuable Tico seafood: fresh, cold tuna. Since the fins are desired dried like jerky, fishers need no costly refrigeration or ice, just space. But this space is at a premium, so all manner of getting rid of anything but fins is irresistible to the greedy and wasteful.
The way sharks are fished here is also greedy and wasteful. Long-lines with lots of hooks left to drift and kill indiscriminately is not sustainable, and neither is netting congregations of marine life with giant purse seine nets. Our neighboring countries are already banning these foolishly unsustainable methods. Costa Rica is appearing to be the slacker nation in Latin America when it comes to helping conserve valuable marine life. We should have been the world leader. We could change that.
The Polynesian Marshall Islands recently parleyed their culture’s reverence of sharks into sustained economic generation through marine conservation. This seafaring nation declared all of its waters a shark refuge and banned foolish fishing. The remote islands have focused on where the most steady and nationally distributed money is coming from: divers, sportfishing, artisan fishing, surfers and ecotourists. The money goes into conserving what makes the money, not exterminating the sharks with the golden fins. The Marshall Islands is now home to the biggest real shark sanctuary on planet Earth. You can be sure countless travel vacations and investments are being planned accordingly.
The Polynesians and the Panamanians, and many other ocean nations, see the writing on the water. The only way to conserve big marine animals is with big marine protected areas and corridors. No matter how much money is spent on counting, tagging, satellite transmitting, diving, boating, filming, fuel, foundations, studies, publications and summits, they will all come to the same conclusion: make managed protected areas and corridors or your big-money animals like sharks, which people love so much, will disappear.
Shawn Larkin is a diving guide on the Southern Zone’s Osa Peninsula and a longtime Tico Times columnist. See his website at www.costacetacea.com.