FULL disclosure: next to dogs, my favorite animals in all the world are sharks. I think they are the most perfect, evolved, and charismatic denizens of the ocean, and these magnificent creatures absolutely don’t deserve to be slaughtered for a bowl of soup.
In August 2019, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life diving in Beqa Lagoon in Fiji, where we encountered sharks—dozens of them, swimming around in front of us in a controlled interaction. For the first time in my life, I was in the water with huge tiger sharks and bull sharks that recognized the local divemasters and nuzzled them like puppies. I was looking them in the eye, and I was close to tears with awe and respect.
“They can feel your love, and that you mean them no harm.” Sounded like a very New Age-y thing to say when you’re talking about the ocean’s apex predators—except that I heard this then from none other than Dr. Erich Ritter, Swiss-born behavioral ecologist, “shark whisperer” and expert, world renowned founder of SharkSchool and a champion of shark conservation working tirelessly to end shark finning all over the world.
That dive holiday included unforgettable lectures from Ritter on shark interaction, and how the animals are largely demonized, but are essential to the survival of the oceans. The experience was made even more dramatic by the unbelievable fact that in 2002, Ritter survived an attack by a bull shark in waist-deep water while filming a Shark Week feature for the Discovery Channel. He lost most of his left calf muscle, and almost all his blood—and his life. Although critics lambasted his methods, he jumped back into the water to continue to fight for the animals, eventually leading the Shark Attack Victim Network.
We joked about heading to his SharkSchool in the Bahamas for our next destination, to learn even more. He told us how happy he was seeing a pregnant bull shark in the water, proof that they were multiplying. “What a great feeling,” he said.
Sadly, Ritter died a year later in his Florida home at age 61, and I treasure my Shark School certification card as a memento from a peerless shark advocate.
Erich Ritter survived a shark attack and almost lost his life—but he recovered and jumped back into the water to continue to fight for the animals
I think of Ritter now as International Shark Awareness Week is marked this week, and Shark Awareness Day is celebrated by environmental and marine conservation groups worldwide on July 14. In the Philippines, where sharks are plentiful but under constant threat, dynamic non-government organizations Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP) and Save Philippine Seas (SPS), in partnership with the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and World Heritage Site, and the Department of Tourism, are holding “A Virtual Dive with Sharks,” allowing non-divers to see up close the sharks of Tubbataha and Danjugan Island in Negros. It will be streamed live on the Facebook pages of MWWP and SPS at 5 pm on July 14.
Along with other members of the Save Sharks Network Philippines (SSNP), the two organizations launched the 2020 Conservation Roadmap for Sharks and Rays in the Philippines in November 2017. “An Act Regulating the Catching, Sale, Purchase, Possession, Transportation, Importation, and Exportation of All Sharks, Rays, and Chimaeras and any Part Thereof in the Country,” also known as the Philippine Shark Conservation Bill, was introduced by Sen. Risa Hontiveros on July 4 that year (Senate Bill 1863), and again by Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on July 9 (House Bill 7912), during the 17th Congress of the Philippines. Today, the SSNP is urging people to help finally push the act into law. (Signature campaign here: https://www.bataris.org.ph/petitions/revise-senate-bill-905-pass-the-shark-and-ray-protection-act.)
Why is it so important to protect sharks, especially at a time when other issues like COVID are taking precedence?
“Precisely because environmental problems such as the pandemic are rooted in our neglect of nature and biodiversity,” says Dr. AA Yaptinchay, MWWP executive director and founder. “Most infectious diseases come from wildlife; sharks are wildlife and important to Philippine biodiversity.”
The inclusion of several shark species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in August 2019 drives home the need for the country to act on vulnerable shark populations. About 200 species of sharks and rays are found in Philippine waters, but only 25 species are protected here.
“As an archipelagic country, Filipinos are heavily dependent on our seas for various livelihoods like fisheries, tourism, and shipping,” says SPS executive director and “chief mermaid” Anna Oposa. “Part of having healthy seas is having a healthy population of sharks. I understand that there are urgent concerns, but we also can’t neglect other development issues that will persist after the pandemic.”
Filipino advocates don’t espouse a total ban on shark fishing, however, in cognizance of the need for fishermen to eat. “Filipinos have lived off the sea forever and have a right to those resources, and not all sharks are threatened and need full protection,” Yaptinchay says. “The Philippines can prove that managed fisheries, leading to sustained fisheries, is indeed possible through the conservation of this one group of fish.”
About 200 species of sharks and rays are found in Philippine waters, but only 25 species are protected
“The current version of the bill is already strong and addresses different issues in shark utilization that bills and laws around the world have not yet considered,” Oposa adds. “My dream is to have this approved this year. With the 2022 elections on the horizon, it’s best to pass this while we still have the current administration. If we wait until 2023, it will be back to square one—finding new champions and gaining their trust to ensure that we make it to the finish line.”
Other than joining the lobby for the bill, what else can you do? You can share info from the SPS and MWWP Facebook pages to spread awareness. You can get involved in shark projects and research. Do not consume or purchase any product with sharks, rays, and their by-products and derivatives; let’s just stop this shark fin soup consumption and buying of cute clutch bags made from stingray skin, because they serve no purpose other than showing off your wealth. Finally, report sightings of sharks and rays in wet markets, shops, or restaurants to SSNP.
Sharks are extraordinary, misunderstood creatures that have long suffered from the bad rap they’ve received from media—despite the fact that mosquitos kill more humans every year! As the late Erich Ritter said, “If they disappear, the entire food chain will collapse. If they go, we go.”
Watch this beautiful video of sharks and rays in the Philippines by Boogs Rosales, and see why they must be protected: