Man eating sharks — and mercury, group warns

PangeaSeed uses art, music to educate the public on the dangers of overfishing these vital marine predators

by Jessica Ocheltree

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “shark”? For many, it’s a gaping maw of razor-sharp teeth or a dorsal fin cutting ominously through the water behind an oblivious swimmer. John Williams’ iconic Jaws score is probably running through your mind as you read this. Sharks are Hollywood’s marine villains, vicious man-eaters that will stop at nothing to feed their insatiable hunger for blood. It’s a characterization that bears about as much resemblance to the truth as you would expect from Tinseltown.

Actually, sharks have far more to fear from us than we do from them. While there might be a handful of shark attacks each year, usually nonfatal, between 26 and 73 million sharks are fished each year, largely for their valuable fins. Those numbers don’t include the sharks that are killed as by-catch in commercial fishing and tossed back.

As sharks are long-living, slow to mature and only have a couple of pups at a time, these numbers are making it difficult for shark populations to replenish themselves. A third of all known shark species are already listed as near-threatened or worse by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and conservation organizations have warned that if the current pace of depletion continues, sharks may be extinct in the wild within a few decades, with grim results for the ocean ecosystem.

“Basically, everywhere we’ve seen where shark populations are taken away from certain areas, everything changes and it’s always for the worse,” says American Tre’ Packard, cofounder and managing director of PangeaSeed, a Tokyo-based volunteer organization that is raising awareness about shark conservation.

As apex predators, sharks work as a regulator, keeping populations below them in check. They keep the ecosystem healthy and balanced by efficiently going after the older, sicker and slower prey. Once the sharks are gone, the things they used to eat experience population explosions, putting extreme pressure on their food sources in turn. These lower species often perform important environmental functions such as water filtration, so with the removal of one predator at the top, all levels of the system are affected, all the way down to water quality.

Being divers and surfers, Packard and his wife, Mayumi Takeda, who live in Enoshima, Kanagawa Prefecture, had a personal interest in this issue. But despite Japan’s flourishing shark trade, when they went looking for local organizations or even branches of global organizations focusing on conservation here, they came up empty. Two years ago they decided to set one up for themselves, and PangeaSeed is still the first and only organization of its kind in the country.

Packard says he wanted the work to be fun as well as educational, so they decided to take a creative approach. Rather than furnishing people with dry facts, they use art, music, photography and film to engage the public on a cultural level and make them aware of the issue.

“I looked at a lot of conservation work, and it’s either militant or it’s got a kind of old-fashioned vibe to it — very conservative,” he says. “It’s been a lot of trial and error, but with the esthetic, you can draw people in, but from there, you can still use the esthetic to convey the message and the hard facts.”

In the past, PangeaSeed has organized art shows and film screenings, collaborated on clothes and stickers with internationally known artists such as Rob Stewart, director of the award-winning documentary “Sharkwater,” and arranged for guest speakers including Michael Bailey, a founding member of Greenpeace, to give lectures in Tokyo. They’ve also made an effort to take part in high-profile events such as Tokyo’s Earth Day celebrations, Fuji Rock and the COP 10 environmental summit in Nagoya. The most popular part of their booth tends to be the kids’ area, where they often feature a drawing corner and face painting.

Interacting with the Japanese public was also something that Packard and his volunteers had to get used to. With confrontations between the Japanese whaling fleet and Sea Shepherd as well as the international condemnation of Japan’s position on bluefin tuna in the news, many people were touchy about any criticism of their country’s fishing practices. Sometimes they were verbally attacked, Packard recalls, but he says people backed down when they found out more about PangeaSeed’s educational mission.

“We don’t want to push. The first time we started this, I was pretty passionate about it, but I realized that doesn’t fly here. You can’t tell people ‘don’t do something.’ You’ve got to be culturally sensitive.”

One thing they often find is that consumers are unaware of the health risks of eating shark. PangeaSeed recently teamed up with one of Japan’s most reputable mercury analysts to test various Japanese foodstuffs that contain shark, and all of the samples came back with high levels of mercury. The samples weren’t confined to shark fin soup, either. Under a voluntary agreement with the U.N., Japan lands the whole body of the sharks they catch, not just the fins. The meat ends up in everything from kamaboko (processed fishcake) to dumplings, while the cartilage and bile are used for collagen supplements and Chinese medicine.

“It’s important to know that sharks are full of mercury,” says Packard. “It’s at the top of the food chain, an apex predator, and they accumulate all the stuff that we pump into the ocean. It’s really hazardous for your health. Sharks are more dangerous to eat than for you to actually get in the water with them.”

The methyl mercury found in shark meat is highly toxic to humans. We assimilate almost 100 percent of any methyl mercury ingested, which can pass through both the blood-brain barrier and the placenta, making it especially dangerous for pregnant women. Methyl mercury has been linked to mutations, cancer, decreased fertility and neurological damage. The maximum mercury intake allowed by the Joint FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)/WHO (World Health Organization) Expert Committee on Food Additives is 0.23 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, yet recent tests of blue sharks by Johannes Gutenberg University found levels up to 4,000 micrograms. A 4-ounce (110-gram) serving of that shark would have exposed you to a massive 455 micrograms of methyl mercury.

In addition to their primary mission of raising awareness, the group has recently been getting more involved in research and documentation. In April they arranged a study trip to two shark hot spots in the Philippines. A total of eight people took part, representing seven different countries.

In Donsol, where efforts are being made to establish ecotourism as a replacement industry for shark fishing, they assisted World Wildlife Fund researchers in tracking the whale sharks that congregate there. They also spoke about ocean conservation with local schoolchildren and assisted them in a beach cleanup and mangrove planting.

In Malapascua, an island where thresher sharks congregate, they assisted the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project, an international group of marine biologists and scientists working to disseminate shark research on a worldwide level.

The group has also visited centers for the fin trade such as Taiwan. Despite hostility in the markets towards foreigners with cameras, they managed to get photos of endless sacks of dried fins, faded spots marking some of them as having once belonged to threatened whale sharks.

Closer to home, members of the group traveled to Kesennuma, the Miyagi port now synonymous with the March 11 tsunami, last year to document the city responsible for the vast majority of Japan’s shark catch. They showed The Japan Times photos from the trip with thousands of dead blue sharks, listed as near-threatened by the IUCN, in piles on a warehouse floor, and bags of shark fins being taken off a boat in contravention of Japan’s agreement with the U.N.

The documentation and research is important to the credibility of their work, says Packard. “For me, if I’m going to be advocating, I want to know what’s actually going on in these hot spots. So we’re going there, taking pictures, talking to locals, finding out information.”

According to the FAO, about 80 percent of shark fishing is done by just 20 countries. Japan brings in an average of 25,000 tons of shark each year, making it No. 9 on that list. The Japanese trade in shark meat and other products such as collagen and leather is worth several billion yen annually, and one fin can net a fisherman about ¥10,000.

With so much money to be made, the sustainability of the industry clearly depends on whether those 20 key countries can effectively regulate the practice. Yet, with the repercussions extending to a global level, it is not just a domestic matter either.

For Packard, the issue requires changes from consumers, fishers and government alike. The problem transcends national borders, and the solution will be similarly international.

“That’s the concept of Pangea. Pangea was the supercontinent, and these are global problems. The only way we’re going to solve these problems is if we work together . . . so that’s what I want to promote with PangeaSeed: reconnecting with nature and supporting each other.”

PangeaSeed’s website: www.pangeaseed.com/. Send your comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp