The ancient Hawaiians understood the need to be both predator and protector, and that the same species—whether shark or human—must find a sustainable balance between the two. Legendary guardian sharks like Ka‘ahupahau and her brother Kahi‘uka of Pu‘uloa inhabited the coastlines of all the Hawaiian islands; benevolent gods who were cared for and worshiped by the people, and who aided fishermen, protected the life of the seas, and drove off more bloodthirsty, man-eating sharks. The shark is the top predator of the seas, but mankind is the top predator on the planet. And just like Ka‘ahupahau and Kahi‘uka, humans have a responsibility to protect as well as prey. As climate change continues to threaten more species with extinction, sharks—the apex predators of the sea—are in particular need of our help.
Some of Kaiwi Berry’s earliest memories involve sailing out into the deep, blue waters of the Pacific ocean off the coast of O‘ahu’s North Shore with his grandfather—diver, crab fisherman and local area icon Harold Blomfield. Even before he can remember, Berry would spend days wrapped up in blankets in a nest his grandfather fashioned on the dashboard of his fishing boat, the Huki, while his grandfather would sail from area to area collecting crabs from the traps he had set the previous day before resetting them for the next haul.
“My parents and grandmother worked full time day jobs, so there were lots of days throughout my childhood when I’d get stuck with grandpa going out on the boat,” Berry recalls with a chuckle. Now 30 years old, he has spent his entire life interacting with the ocean, learning to love its rhythm and to respect its power. This appreciation extends to the creatures that live in the ocean and, for Berry, this includes an intimate relationship with one the ocean’s chief predatory species, the shark.
“When my grandfather would pull up his traps, there would be this bucket of bait in the trap—fish heads and guts,” says Berry. “After he’d collect the crabs from the trap, he’d throw all the old bait overboard and replace it. Let’s say there were six traps in each location; by the time he had collected all six, there would be a pretty sizable amount of meat floating around in the ocean—the perfect amount for sharks to scavenge on.”
After a while, the sharks began to associate the sound of the boat’s motors with food. Eventually, Berry and his grandfather would leave Hale‘iwa harbor and head out for the first trap, and the sharks would already be waiting for them.
“So picture this kid growing up feeding them, learning the markings on each of them, even naming them—having actual relationships with them from a very early age,” he says. By the time he was 10 years old, Berry was in the water swimming with them—like it was “no big deal.”
Today, Berry is the captain of his own boat, the Mo‘o, and is the operator of Islandview Hawaii, a tour company that provides customers with an opportunity to safely interact with these majestic creatures. “We get to take people out on the water to spend what can often turn out to be one of the best days of their lives,” he says. “Or, at the very least, an eye-opening experiences that they’ll hang on to forever and ever.”
Over his 20 years spent with sharks, Berry has learned more and more about them and the complicated relationship humans can have with them. “People have so much fear for them, or fear of the ocean because of sharks. I just want to help people see sharks the way I see them,” he says.
“They’re not the killing machines that people make them out to be. They’re big, enormous, beautiful creatures. They swim gracefully, they’re spunky, and they all have individual personalities, just like in any other species,” continues Berry. “Every time we go out, we treat the experience like it’s a fresh, new thing. Sharks are wild animals, and they absolutely need to be treated with respect. But you can also develop a trust for each other, I’d like to think, and find wonderful ways to coexist.”
Finding ways to coexist, as it turns out, is crucial to the survival of the species, and to the overall health of the ocean. But it isn’t always easy to see the situation like that. Incidents of shark bites are dramatic, and almost always capture negative media attention that often leads to harmful, reactionary policies like shark culling. Overcoming the natural fear that comes with a lack of understanding is a crucial step to ensuring that our ocean ecosystems remain healthy for generations to come. Fortunately, there is a growing collective of scientists, activists and dedicated waterfolk like Berry who are working to better understand these creatures and, in turn, to help frame the public discourse around sharks in a reasoned and measured way.
Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years; they are one of the oldest species on the planet today, and they exert considerable influence on the ocean ecosystem. Sharks are apex predators—at the top of the food chain—and they maintain pivotal positions in a healthy ecosystem by ensuring biodiversity. Sharks help to control and shape the populations of many marine animal species. They tend to go after sick or injured prey, which helps to keep populations healthy. They also regulate the behavior of prey species and use intimidation tactics that prevent those species from overgrazing vital habitats. The loss of shark populations is already disrupting the vital balance in ocean ecosystems.
“Sharks control the oceans’ health. Without them, the food chains of the ocean would crash; everything from tuna to phytoplankton would be affected,” says Saiward Turnbaugh, an aquarist for the North Carolina Aquariums’ Animal Husbandry Department. As an Aquarist, she is responsible for animal welfare, training and care and educating the public. “Ecosystems such as coral reefs and grass beds will crash, as will commercially important fish, including tuna and shellfish populations, if sharks are not present to regulate.”
For example, horn sharks eat urchins who can decimate kelp beds that are vital habitat for many species and serve as nurseries for juvenile animals. Tiger sharks help to maintain seagrass beds by controlling the population of sea turtles. Smooth hammerheads help control the population size of rays, which primarily eat scallops, clams and other bivalves.
“We don’t know what could happen if the kinds of pressure sharks exert on ecosystems is suddenly released, but it certainly can’t be good in the short term,” says Dr. Melanie Hutchinson, a researcher for the University of Hawai‘i’s Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology (HIMB). “Furthermore, we are continuing to lose biodiversity in every system on earth. Loss of biodiversity reduces the ability of an ecosystem to deal with climatic changes or disease events. We are essentially shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Whether you live inland, on a mountain or in the desert, the oceans impact us all on a daily basis. That should be cause enough to protect sharks yet, today, some shark populations have declined by as much as 60–70 percent. Sharks have survived five major world extinction events and have lived, relatively unchanged, for the past 400 million years. But, because of human practices, sharks represent the most threatened group of species found in the oceans today.
After 20 years observing sharks, Kaiwi Berry has gotten to know these creatures better than most people alive. Although he cautions that shark research is still relatively new, and that any patterns in their behavior must be set against the context of 400 hundred million years of evolution, he does have some insight. Most bites seem to happen around a certain season, such as during the migration season for tigers, which—in Hawaiian waters—are the sharks that tend to bite humans.
Still, he has some advice for swimmers and surfers. “I would avoid dirty water with low visibility. Places where there’s a lot of runoff or sewage can be especially dangerous because of the smell. Sharks are scavengers; avoid swimming near harbor entrances or places where people are fishing, cleaning fish or handling dead fish,” says Berry.
“In my own experience, sharks seem to come into the waters frequented by people more often in the late summer than any other time,” he says. “But here’s a perfect example of how we really don’t know anything: from June 25–30, there was a shark in 10-foot deep water every day by Alligator Rock Beach in Hale‘iwa. They can and will do whatever they want.”
“Sharks are very difficult animals to study,” agrees Dr. Carl Meyer, a zoologist and colleague of Hutchinson at HIMB. Meyer and his colleagues are using technology to try and reveal the hidden lives of sharks. “We use a variety of electronic devices to help us pierce the veil and ‘see’ how sharks use their marine environment. These devices range from relatively simple ‘pingers,’ used to track sharks, to the equivalent of flight data recorders for sharks,” he says.
The latter provides Meyer with ultra high-resolution insight into how sharks are swimming and what they are seeing and encountering. These tools are allowing scientists to gradually reveal the natural ecology of these animals and to illuminate their role in ocean ecosystems.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, is assessing post-release mortality rates in sharks that are captured as bycatch in the tuna longline fishery in Hawai‘i and American Samoa. Working with the National Marine Fishery Service, she is training observers to tag sharks with satellite linked pop-off tags. These tags archive depth, temperature and light data and have a corrodible link that severs the connection to the animal when it reaches a pre-programmed deployment period. It then floats to the surface and transmits the data archive to a satellite array.
“I can then determine the fate of the animal and get quantitative estimates of the total fishery induced mortality for sensitive shark species,” Hutchinson explains. “In this project we are also trying to identify the handling and discard practices that will maximize survival rates. We will then make recommendations to fishers on best practices.”
“The process is much like doing a puzzle,” says Meyer. “Each research project gives us a piece of that puzzle and over time we put the pieces together to see the big picture.”
“What most people know about sharks comes from the media, which tends to portray sharks along the lines of the creature from the movie Jaws (1975),” says Turnbaugh. “Unfortunately the media thrives on reporting on stories that don’t put sharks in the best light. So our duty must be to learn as much as we can, and then to inform and educate the public. The more we learn, the more effective we can be with saving sharks from ending up on the endangered species list. Perhaps one day we can even get the sharks currently on the list, off from it.”
Perhaps this is where Berry’s experience with sharks in the wild can be helpful in changing the discourse around these misunderstood creatures.
“Sharks work on a hierarchy, and size does matter,” says Berry. “A good indicator of this hierarchy is the depth at which sharks swim in relation to the surface of the ocean. It works downward from the surface, which makes sense when you think about it from the perspective of the scavengers that they are. And it’s an ever-changing thing; so they’ll test each other.
“Attitude goes a long way in dealing with them: how you hold yourself while you swim; even little things like keeping your heart rate steady,” continues Berry. “Everything comes into play. But really, other than the stakes, it’s no different from a cat or a dog or a horse: you can tell when they’re pissed off and when it’s cool to approach them. It’s body language.
“They are wild animals though,” cautions Berry. “What that means is that they need to be respected. You never turn your back on them, you never assume that you know something about them, and you never stop paying attention to them. You can’t ever get cocky about handling them, or there is a definite chance you will get hurt. They are powerful creatures and they should never be taken lightly.
“But I think the vast majority of bites are mistakes,” he adds. “The shark is almost never actually trying to bite a human.”
“The fact remains that being bitten by a shark is a highly unlikely event, the odds are always against that happening,” says Hutchinson.
Across the Ka‘ie‘iewaho channel, roughly 72 miles northwest of the waters Berry frequents, another lifelong waterman paddles his board out to catch waves off the coast of Kaua‘i. Mike Coots sees the wave he wants and takes off, slicing through the water with grace and ease. But Coots isn’t like most other surfers—he’s never known what it feels like to place his right foot on the tail pad of a board. His right leg, from mid-thigh down, is prosthetic. A local of the Garden Isle, Coots has an intimate relationship of a slightly different kind with the primary predators of the sea. Twenty years ago, Coots was an up-and-coming body-boarder. One fateful day in 1997, as he was paddling out to catch a barrel at Major’s Bay, a tiger shark took his right leg.
The event was traumatic: Coots experienced confusion and, to a certain extent, a crisis of identity over his relationship with the ocean in the immediate aftermath. He’d grown up in the water and riding the waves was a part of who he had always been. Incredibly, the young man pulled himself back up and refused to become despondent. His own infectiously positive attitude, immediately apparent when speaking to him today, and his upbringing in Hawai‘i—infused with aloha, and built on the strength and support of his friends and family—gave him the attitude of a philosopher and a clarity of thought far beyond his years. Instead of becoming angry, he decided to become educated.
“The more that I’ve learned about sharks and spent time with them, the more I’ve been fascinated by them,” Coots says. “Diving with a great white is such an incredible experience. It’s one of the coolest things you can ever do. If you ever get a chance to dive with a great white, you’ll be buzzing for days afterward. There’s nothing else really like it on Earth.”
Today, Coots is a photographer, surfer and advocate for shark conservation: he’s spoken to members of Congress and before the United Nations about the importance of sharks to our ocean ecosystems; he’s written op-eds for publications around the country; and he’s spent time educating a new generation of scientists-to-be, replacing some of the fear people have for sharks with awe and wonder.
“Why sharks? Well to be honest, yeah, it mostly had to do with being attacked by one,” says Coots. “Afterwards I realized I could use that event—traumatic though it was—as leverage to accomplish some good that maybe someone else might not be able to. And why not use that leverage to do something positive?”
Coots uses the irony of his story—a shark bite survivor who campaigns to save sharks—as a hook to get through the office doors of key policy-makers that otherwise might not listen. “I’ll go with a marine biologist and share my shark attack story first and then hand it over to the biologist who can talk about the science behind what’s happening and the importance of sharks and all of the ways that the policy-maker can help,” Coots explains.
And he’s already seen positive results: in 2011, Hawai‘i became the first state in the nation to ban shark finning, and it was a result of a bill that Coots helped to write.
Coots turned to photography as a creative outlet in the aftermath of his experience with the tiger, and he uses his skill with a camera to capture and document the behavior of sharks all around the world. “It puts a face to the name so people can begin to shed the unnecessary fear they tend to have,” he says. “For me it’s just who I am. When I dive I’ll take photos of sharks which become a visual means of campaigning for sharks on social media. My interests allow me to help people see the beauty of sharks and then put that into the context of what’s happening to sharks worldwide, so they can see beyond just the jaws and the teeth and start to see the why sharks are in our oceans, and why they’re important.”
On the Brink
Sharks need all the help from friends like Coots that they can get. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has designated Red List status to nearly 100 species of sharks, while the United Nations Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna has listed several species of sharks as “threatened with extinction.” Shark populations are declining for several reasons, but the biggest impacts are from overfishing.
There are directed fisheries where sharks are the target, including the shark fin trade and artisanal fisheries for shark meat and other products like teeth, bones and liver oil, or squalene, which is used in beauty and skin care products (even though the hydrocarbon in squalene that is supposedly beneficial can also be found in palm oil). Several species of sharks, such as threshers, blues and shortfin makos, are targeted by recreational fishermen in shark tournaments.
Other sharks are captured incidentally or as bycatch. Sharks are accidentally killed when other seafood is being targeted as a result of often miles-long nets and long-lines in the water. Sharks can entangle themselves in the nets and lines, drowning them as they become unable to regulate water over their gills through swimming.
“The root cause of overfishing is consumer demand for shark and fish products at higher volumes than shark populations can sustain,” says Meyer.
Meyer and Hutchinson say that sharks are particularly susceptible to overfishing because of their life history characteristics. Sharks are long-lived with slow growth, late ages at maturity, low reproductive output (small litter sizes) and high natural juvenile mortality rates. This combination of characteristics means they are unable to replenish their populations as fast as they being taken out. Adding to the danger here are many current fishing policies; the levels of allowable fishing efforts are based on the target species—tuna and billfish, for example—which are broadly cast serial spawners capable of sustaining high levels of fishing effort that sharks cannot.
Another threat to shark populations is habitat loss, which is especially deleterious for sharks using inshore nursery areas. Recently, Coots worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts to push for the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian islands, which President Obama authorized on August 26, 2016. Research shows that habitats within the monument support abundant Galapagos, tiger and grey reef sharks. By increasing the size of Papahānaumokuākea to 582,578 square miles, these resident species, and other migratory sharks that frequent these waters, can be successfully protected.
Sharks are also being culled, a practice that involves hunting large sharks in an attempt to prevent shark bites. “Shark culling is always a topic that tends to come up after there’s an uptick in shark bites, but it’s a total knee-jerk reaction,” says Coots. “The research we have shows that it doesn’t actually help prevent humans from being accidentally bitten in any significant way.”
“The media can create chaos from exaggerated reporting styles that instill fear in people,” says Turnbaugh. “Human fear is dangerous for sharks, and socio-political pressures have resulted in reactionary policies. When tourism dollars are threatened, sharks quickly become targets.”
Historic shark culling programs in Hawai‘i have killed hundreds of tiger sharks, yet shark bites still continued. Of all the historic Hawai‘i shark culling programs, the 1967-69 program killed the most tiger sharks (280), yet two out of the just three shark bites documented during the 1960s occurred in 1969 in the late stages of, and immediately after, the culling program.
“Our tracking data clarify why culling is ineffective,” says Meyer. “Sharks that are removed from an area are soon replaced by other individuals moving in from both local and distant sources.”
Additionally, small sharks often make up the greatest proportion of a large shark’s diet, so there is often a top down population pressure being exerted by a healthy, age-structured population. When you remove the largest sharks through a cull, it can relieve pressure on the smaller sized, or younger sharks, which could potentially lead to an increase in bites.
“The bottom line is that culling disrupts the ecosystem, and humans are pretty bad at guessing how those sorts of disruptions are going to ultimately affect the environment or, in this case, our own safety,” says Coots.
“There are other ways to manage the relationship between sharks and humans,” Coots adds. On Green Island in New South Wales, Australia, the government closed the beaches after a rash of shark bites. Tourism suffered as the popular surf spot remained closed for several years.
“The government finally decided to put in a bunch of special nets. The nets don’t hurt the sharks and don’t have a large impact on marine life in general,” he continues. “People were really skeptical at first; they didn’t think people would return to the beach but, after the nets went up, tourism picked up and people flocked to the beach. Tourism is booming and people are surfing again.”
Other innovative methods include special devices, shaped like kelp beds, that generate an electric field that can deter sharks from continuing further. “Of course, they can swim through the fields if they want, but the idea is that they won’t want to and they’ll turn around,” says Coots. “That’s still just a prototype idea, but I’ve heard good things about it. The point is, there are other ways of coexisting that don’t involve culling.”
The proverbial whale shark in the room when it comes to the conservation of shark species centers on the conflict between modern science and traditional, cultural practices. Sharks are still being killed for their fins to make shark fin soup in Asia.
“In America, we’re fortunate that we actually have pretty strict shark laws,” says Coots. “But, to be honest, a lot of the finning is happening in international waters.”
“While the United States has been a leader in managing sustainable shark fisheries, and has some of the strongest shark management measures worldwide, sharks are still being killed for their fins as the cultural valve of shark fins is slow to change,” says Turnbaugh.
“It’s a hard one,” says Berry. “If you really want to stop overfishing, how do you get people to reverse traditions that are, sometimes, centuries old? It’s a way of life in somebody else’s culture. In America, we’ve done a good job of opening people’s eyes to the plight of sharks. We’ve been able to educate a lot of people and show them that sharks aren’t monsters who are attacking us. But in other places like Asia, where most of the overfishing takes place, it’s often a cultural thing.
“It’s raw and it’s gnarly when you encounter the finning that goes on; when you see dying sharks sinking to the bottom of the ocean because they can’t swim anymore. It’s cruel,” he continues. “But how can we tell these people that their way of life, or their means of feeding their family, which they’ve been doing in some cases for generations, is wrong? How do you stress the point, being on our island right here in the middle of the Pacific—how do we tell them, ‘hey, you’re ruining it; you’re ruining the entire ocean? Don’t you see that?’ I don’t know. It’s a weird concept to think that you’re just going to go over them and tell them that their way of life, all they’ve ever known, is completely wrong.”
Along with shark fining to create shark fin soup, a market for shark fins in pill form to aid in cancer and arthritis treatments has developed in recent years, though these treatments are dubious at best.
But there is some relief, according to Coots. “One thing that actually seems to be helping doesn’t really have anything to do with conservation,” he says. “Shark fin soup is seen as a status symbol in Asia, and in particular in China. And China is really cracking down on corruption right now. People in China really used to want to show their wealth, and now they’re actually starting to want to kind of hide it because they could be audited by the central government. As a result, the consumption of shark fin soup is actually going down.”
Nevertheless, educating the public about the importance of sharks and the danger they face as a result of practices like shark finning remains a crucial aspect of the work to conserve shark populations around the world.
“People should be demanding sustainable seafoods and educating themselves about the products they buy,” says Hutchinson. “The dollar wields a lot of power, and there is great responsibility in the use of that power. I always tell people to download the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app on their phones and to use it at restaurants and at the market.
“Consumers are the ones driving fisheries, so we just need to steer them in the right direction. People are very disconnected from their food sources these days and reestablishing this connection will help immensely,” she continues. “Avoid trawl-caught shrimp. The bycatch in this fishery far outweighs the catch rate of the target. Not to mention trawlers are environmentally very destructive. People should avoid imported pelagics like dorado, swordfish and tuna. The U.S. has some of the best regulations for fisheries targeting highly migratory species of sharks, so it’s better to purchase seafoods that are captured by the U.S. fleet than by those with looser controls fishing the same populations.”
“Refrain from entering into recreational shark fishing tournaments or from supporting them,” adds Turnbaugh. “Know where the seafood you are eating is coming from. How is it caught? Are sustainable fishing practices being used? Become an informed consumer. Don’t buy products containing squalene or supplements containing ingredients from sharks. Refrain from buying souvenirs such as jaws and teeth, or baby sharks dried in jars of formaldehyde.
“Shark populations have been decimated throughout the world,” she continues. “People love to save cute and cuddly animals, and that’s great. But other animals, that may not seem so cute and cuddly, need protecting as well. There are animals, such as sharks, that require saving—not only for their species to survive, but for all the species of the oceans to survive as well. And if that doesn’t get you motivated, then how about for the health of the human species? Humans rely on the ocean in many different ways.”
“We live in a day and age where the power can be with the people more than ever before,” says Coots. “We live in a communications era where there’s not a lot to really stop you from doing something to help; whether it’s making a small change in your lifestyle or doing something bigger, you have the resources available to you. There’s really no excuse; if you’re passionate about something, there’s been no better time in the history of the world to do something about it; to make change.”
Coots believes that the key to changing public perception of sharks lies in sparking the interests of the next generation of scientists and activists. “Kids love the ocean; it’s like this mysterious place that hasn’t been discovered. Sharks are older than dinosaurs; how cool is that? Sharks can be very appealing to kids, and those are future marine biologists. Same thing with seeing cool photos of sharks on social media, or photos of turtles and whales and dolphins.
“Photography is a great medium because it captures, in a way that words can’t, just how amazingly beautiful the parts of the world that we don’t get to see on a daily basis are,” he continues. He works to bridge the knowledge gap about sharks by sharing images and stories: “A lot of the problem lies in the unknown that exists between people and sharks. There’s still so much that we really don’t know; we’ve never even seen a great white give birth. There’s this mystique to them as a result. The good news is that we can use that mystique for good, because—deep down inside—that’s what attracts people to sharks.”
“The reason we work to save sharks is because Hawai‘i is so dear to our hearts,” says Berry. “My family has been here for generations and generations. To think about how Hawai‘i started and how it is now, and how it will end up if we continue down this path of change—if we can’t get people to respect the island, respect our culture, our values and what’s going on here, then how are we going to be able to hold on to our resources?
“What will be here for the next generation if we don’t honor our duties to protect things like sharks?” he wonders. “That’s why I like being out in the middle of the ocean, swimming with sharks in the most beautiful water you’ll ever know—water that you can’t even describe the color blue that it is. It’s an amazing thing, and if we keep wrecking our island, wasting all of our resources—that kind of stuff isn’t going to be there. So we need to have pride in education; we need to spark interest in conservation; we need to be conscious and not walk around with our heads up our okoles. Take only what you need, and hopefully that will allow us to preserve this place.”