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Shark fin soup - Part 2

Alexandra Cousteau and President Martin TorrijosSpeaking at the signing of the anti-shark finning law.

Following the release of Jaws, that 1970s thriller about an evil man-eating Great White shark, the public image of this extraordinary animal took a turn for the worse. Fear and misunderstanding of sharks became a part of the psyche of generations of people from all over the world. In spite of growing conservation concerns, “Save the sharks!” would have rallied few supporters to the cause, a sad truth made all the more so by the fact that sharks are in peril - their very existence increasingly threatened by overfishing and shark finning.

Sharks are unlike other fish in that they are slow to mature and reproduce and then generally have a small number of offspring when they finally do. This makes them vulnerable to overexploitation and mismanagement by fisheries. In addition, many shark species are highly migratory, leading to difficult situations where the conservation efforts of one country are nullified by the unsustainable practices of another. As more demand is placed on the world’s fisheries resources, too many species are being pushed to the edge.

But there is reason to hope. On March 17th I traveled back to Panama to witness a very special event – the kind that gives me hope for the future. In response to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization request directed to 120 countries to develop shark management plans, Panama followed through with a strong initiative outlawing shark finning that was signed into law last week by President Martin Torrijos. Sitting next to him as he took pen to paper in an act that would save countless sharks was an overwhelming moment for me. Truth be told, the emotion I felt was so strong that I didn’t know if I would laugh or cry. Happily I did neither though I probably did have a silly grin on my face during the entire event.

Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done. People must comply with this new law, which means that enforcement of coastal areas, surveillance of ports, and education of communities is now a priority. In Panama, civil society is strengthened by government collaboration and I feel sure that progress will be made towards the effective implementation of this legislation.

Panama is an example for other countries to follow in the effort to sustainably manage shark populations at a global level. Life on our planet depends on healthy oceans, and healthy oceans depend on diverse ecosystems. Laws like the one passed in Panama go a long way towards contributing to a process that works to protect ocean biodiversity and the survival of an extraordinary marine animal.