On Sharks, Spearfishing, and Senseless Killing

by B. N. Sullivan

sharkOver the years we have had many encounters with sharks while diving. We have told quite a few tales about sharks here on The Right Blue. Our readers always seem to enjoy our stories and photos of sharks, and a quick glance at the list of keywords that bring search traffic to The Right Blue tells us that a lot of people are looking for information about sharks every day.

It should be clear to anyone who has read our tales about sharks that we enjoy seeing them in the ocean. We do not fear them, but we do respect the sharks' role as apex predators in the hierarchy of ocean life. Sharks have great value to the overall ecology of the sea.

Without question, the shark species we have encountered most frequently is the Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus). We have seen this species regularly in our home waters around Hawaii, and in virtually every tropical reef environment we have visited around the world. We have seen Whitetips 'sleeping' in cavelets, on ledges, and on sandy bottoms. We have seen them actively and expertly hunting at night -- an impressive sight, indeed. Mostly we see these elegant animals lazily cruising the reefs, just like we do when we're diving.

We have never seen or heard of a Whitetip Reef Shark harming a human. They are not an aggressive shark. Neither are they valued as food for humans.

So, imagine our complete dismay and disgust when we learned recently that a Whitetip Reef Shark was senselessly killed by divers who were spearfishing at Puako, Hawaii. Here is an excerpt from this sad story, as it appeared on a local news blog called Hawaii247.com:
A couple of weeks ago, a resident Whitetip Reef Shark, known to countless Puako scuba divers, was speared and dragged out of the water along Puako Beach Drive.

A Puako resident who asked the young spearfishermen if they planned to eat the shark reported that they didn’t know what to do with it and that they had just shot it because they could.

As the animal thrashed around in a tidepool with a spear through it, they were unconcerned about its fate. It is likely that it died and was washed out to sea by the surf in the night.

The market value of a single shark pales in comparison to its value on the reef, alive and serving its function for reef ecology. As seemingly insignificant as the take of one shark may seem, these are not abundant animals, and, as they pose no danger to us, there is no justification for killing them for sport.
They had just shot it because they could. How brave. How sporting. NOT!!

Some time ago, a reader asked us, via The Right Blue contact form, what we thought of spearfishing. We sent him a reply privately, but made a note to address the issue in a blog post "one of these days." When the story about the senseless killing of that shark in Puako came to our attention, we decided that "one of these days" should be now.

Our attitudes and ideas about spearfishing have developed over time. Many years ago, in the early days of sport diving, many divers took along spearguns on nearly every dive, as a matter of course. It just seemed to be the thing to do. We never engaged in spearfishing, but many of our dive companions certainly did. Yet, it wasn't ever a question of engaging in target practice on reef fish, at least among the divers we knew. Instead, those divers speared food fish (or tried to -- they missed more often than not). If they managed to spear a grouper, sea bass, or flounder, all of us happily feasted on the catch.

Here in Hawaii, many people still spearfish. A good number of those look upon spearfishing as just another method to catch fish to put on the family dinner table. We have no quarrel with this kind of spearfishing, as a matter of principle.

We do have a big problem with spearfishing of the sort engaged in by the shark-killers in the above story. Fish -- whether sharks or angelfish or anything in between -- must not be used for target practice, ever. With spearfishing, there is no such thing as 'catch and release'. In most instances, a fish, once speared, will suffer substantial tissue and organ damage. It will not be able to survive, even if it is removed from the spear and let go. There simply is no excuse for spearing a fish you are not going to eat, just because you can. Of this we are certain.

Many conservationists oppose any sort of spearfishing by divers using scuba, reasoning that it provides the spearfisherman with an unfair, unsporting advantage over his game. They contend that spearfishing only should be allowed while free diving.

While we agree with the spirit of this point of view, we think it subsumes that spearfishing always is done just for sport. To us, "sport" implies just the kind of live target-shooting we abhor. We concede, of course, that this may be a semantic difference.

In truth, we are less concerned about whether a spearfisherman is free diving or using scuba than about his motivation. If we are talking about fishing for food, we don't see much practical distinction between spearfishing, throwing a net, or tossing a baited hook into the water.

Our core attitude about spearfishing is this: Don't spear anything you are not going to eat, and don't spear more fish (or other animals) than you need for a meal.

17 comments:

  1. Makes sense to me. I can't imagine why anyone would kill a land animal or bird "just for sport" either.
    I think you're doing a great service to sharks in giving them such good press. Interestingly, because my computer's a bit slow, as I tried scrolling down your page one line got stuck and repeated itself over and over. It was:
    "We do not fear them, but we do respect the sharks' role".

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  2. I wish I could say I was surprised that some idiots would kill a shark "just because we can", but I'm not. I further wish these clowns could be charged with something, because it seems criminal that they would kill such an animal and then just leave it to be washed out to sea.

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  3. @ Lavender - Yes, you are right. Killing "just for sport" is abhorrent on land as well as in the sea.

    Re your scrolling glitch -- we set that up by remote control, just so you'd notice that line. (Just kidding, of course.)

    @ Dennis - There is a movement afoot to legislate some sort of protection for these animals, but so far they are 'fair game', so to speak. At the same time I should mention that even animals that are officially protected still are taken from time to time. Enforcement can be difficult: someone has to witness an illegal kill and notify authorities. The latter may or may not arrive at the scene in time to nab the bad guys.

    Bobbie

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  4. Fishing and hunting regulations usually have some clause about "waste" or "proper disposal". There is probably something they could be charged with for simply leaving a kill.

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  5. These morons better hope that they don't meet me underwater. Perhaps a game of reverse underwater hunting? It sickens me when I see this type of behavior. Something as beautiful as this should never be killed for sport....kind of reminds me of a good Clint Eastwood film, "White Hunter Black Heart"....
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100928/
    If you haven't seen it, check it out.... rjs

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  6. I may not complegely agree with this, but there is a school of environmental thought which states that since trophy hunting brings income to local people, who often kill animals for killing livestock, etc. that it should be condoned. Thoughts?

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  7. Bobbie, thanks for bringing this incident about spearfishing a shark right 'just for the excitement of killing a shark' to our attention. That it happened in Hawaiian water is especially disturbing.

    We all hope there will be some laws set up soon to prevent such mindless acts in the future, even though we are aware that not everybody gets caught breaking the current regulations.

    But to tell you the truth there are many more stories about animal cruelty out there which are really upsetting me just think of catching the sharks for shark fins, cutting the fins off - just for making a soup! - and throwing the still alive sharks back into the water. Who would want to eat that shark fin soup? Not me!!!!

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  8. today I watched some pre-teen boys torture a large beautiful reef fish to death in a tidal pool up by Mokopu'u. I tried to talk them into letting it go, as did the little girls watching them. But they were having too much fun tossing it, dragging it around, holding it half out of the water, exhausting it as it tried to get away, all with the parents watching just a few feet away. These are the boys that will grow up to kill something just because they can, and won't care how much pain they cause. Very upsetting. I had to walk away.

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  9. Great shot. I couldn't agree with you more on your issue. It has never made sense. It has always been a problem with some people it seems, to destroy so senselessly. It's really sad. :-(

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  10. I've always held that view of fishing of any sort. I make no apologies for occupying my place at the top of the food chain, but if I take it out of the water it's to eat it.

    And your point about there being no catch-and-release option is one I hadn't considered, but is absolutely valid.

    Killing any animal "just because you can" is as abhorrent a concept as there is to me. I don't suppose these two suffered any consequences for their actions, did they? Other than perhaps being publicly called out in the press.

    Certainly nothing commensurate with the consequences of the shark they slaughtered.

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  11. The latest round of comments on this post tells us the story hit a nerve with a lot of our readers. Thanks, all of you, for adding your thoughts.

    @ ScienceGuy - I have very mixed feelings about that issue, too. It may not be so bad in the case of very abundant animals, but I am generally against trophy-hunting activities of any sort -- and definitely if the goal is ONLY to obtain a trophy. Re income for local people -- I'd rather see the income come from photo safaris (on land and underwater) rather than killing. Similar process and income opportunities for the locals, but without unnecessary killing.

    @Pua - Well said. You have just reminded me that I should write specifically about shark-finning in another post.

    Bobbie

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  12. I used to be a big ocean fisherman. I always ate what I caught and often that was lingcod, one of my favorite fish. Once I had the opportunity to snorkel with a friend who spear fished. He also only killed what he ate. We were in prime lingcod water and I found I could not pull the trigger when looking the fish in the eye. I had to stick to fishing from the boat. I have not been fishing for many years and the only part I really miss is all the fresh fish to eat.

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  13. Great story, Will. Thanks.

    Bobbie

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  14. ScienceGuy288, you do realize that Hawaiians hold the shark as sacred, right? That we believe they are our aumakua sent to help guide us on our paths, right? I am doubtful that the locals would meet any such trophy hunting with a lot of aloha. Although I now live on the mainland, I do know that the locals are pushing back regarding shark tours.

    Anonymous, you should have slapped those kids' heads! I know I have when I've seen them doing cruel things like that. How will they learn?

    Healani

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  15. I think that if your diving you provoke a shark and it gets closer don't just shoot it with your spear gun just jab it with your dive knife.

    now i am no expert that's just what i heard form my uncle who used to dive.

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  16. Hi all,
    I have been fishing and diving all my life. I dove and fished every island and enjoy doing that. I grew up poor and always helped supplement the dinner table with fish. As an adult my family enjoyed eating what ever I caught instead of meat and I always made sure that we ate everything that I caught. Ocassionly I would catch a shark by hook and line and made sure that nothing was wasted ( was legal then). I would eat the meat, give the skin and teeth to a friend who made hawaiian drums and old style hawaiian weapons, and take the fins to some chinese restaurant who feed me and my family a meal in exchange.

    I did not kill anything indiscriminately for fun or just because. I have taught my two sons the same lessons in life and the concept of the circle of life. Recently, I have watched my youngest son deal with sharks when spearfishing. He shows a lot of respect for the ocean and the things that live there. I have watched him push sharks away that get too close or just floats, observes and enjoys the sharks company. Just the other day we encountered a monk seal off of sand-souzi beach and watched as it played hide and seek with us and we dove for fish. It swam up to out float and was looking at the tako that we had on our stringer, so my son took it off and gave to the seal. The seal ate and left.

    Before retiring, I had this young man that I supervised and learned that he was also a skin diver. One day he came to work and showed me a picture of his catch on his big island trip. One of the photos depicted a five foot white tip reef shark that he had speared and left on the ocean floor. I told him that this type of shark would not have bothered him and asked why he had killed it. His response was, "I just wanted to see if I could shoot a shark." We got into an argument and I made him cry. He later asked to tranfer to another unit because of that, but I hope he understood and learned from that argument. I hope....I hope.....I hope.......

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We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry