From hunting sharks to protecting them: how a project is saving species in Baja California

Shark fishing has devastating ecological consequences. Discover, below, how the ORGCAS project is ending the practice - with fantastic returns for local economies
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Shark fishing has become a worry globally due to the intensive and often cruel practices that accompany it. Drastic reductions in shark populations also come with serious ecological consequences; sharks are top-of-the-chain predators that play a crucial role in balancing marine ecosystems.

Fortunately, projects have been launched to reverse the situation, including the ORGCAS NGO, which is working to convert hunters of the species into the sharks’ greatest protectors.

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Why are sharks so prized?

The main motor behind shark fishing is the demand for their fins, especially in Asian markets, where shark fin soup is considered to be both a delicacy and a status symbol. Exorbitant prices can be charged for the dish, which incentivizes fishers to kill sharks exclusively for their fins, in a procedure known as “finning”. This cruel practice consists of cutting off the fins and throwing the sharks back into the sea still alive, but after which they inevitably die from the wounds.

To promote shark conservation, this practice has been banned in around 70% of countries and overseas territories. But the rules, although reducing the frequency of the practice, has not really served to save more shark lives, says a report by an international research team in Science magazine.

In several countries in Asia and Oceania, shark hide is eaten. Most of the hide, however, is converted into leather, the FAO explains. Although shark gristle is also eaten, the biggest market for it is the pharmaceutical industry.


Why shark conservation is important for the environment

The drastic reduction in shark populations has grave ecological consequences. Sharks are top-of-the-chain predators who play a crucial role in keeping marine ecosystems in balance, so their conservation is essential. Their decline could unleash a cascade effect that alters the structure and function of these ecosystems, affecting other species and ultimately local economies dependent on fishing.

Capture of sharks worldwide, as notified to the FAO, has tripled since 1950 and reached its highest ever – 868,000 tonnes - in the year 2000. Since then, this figure has fallen after Science magazine published, in the first decade of the 21st C., an article demonstrating the cascade effect that occurred in ocean communities when over-fishing eliminated large predators such as the bull, great white and hammerhead sharks.

The researchers found that the population of these species fell by 97% between 1970 and 2005, reaching 99% in some areas of the US Atlantic coast. And, with their disappearance, stingrays and other species normally eaten by sharks experienced a demographic explosion.


“The population of these species fell by 97% between 1970 and 2005, reaching 99% in some areas of the US Atlantic coast”.


The consequences were devastating. The proliferation of stingrays meant they needed more food and went about annihilating bivalve populations, directly impacting the traditional fishing sector in North Carolina. As a result of the destruction of the bivalves, water quality worsened, since they are organisms that filter huge quantities of seawater.

Sharks also indirectly maintain seaweed habitats and coral reefs. Indeed, shark loss has led to a decline in coral reefs, seaweed beds and commercial fishing.

By eliminating the presence of sharks in coral reef ecosystems, other predators such as groupers proliferate and feed off herbivores. With fewer herbivores, macro-algae expand and the coral cannot compete with them, leading to the ecosystem becoming dominated by seaweed, which threaten the survival of the reef.


ORGCAS: a pioneering project in shark conservation

Makos are the fastest sharks alive, such that they are known as the cheetahs of the ocean. They can reach over 70 km per hour in the blink of the eye. These predators, which boast some 3,000 teeth, became the swimming companions of the journalist Amaro Gómez-Pablos in the waters of the Sea of Cortés.

Today a quarter of shark species are in danger of extinction due to overfishing. Most are just about holding on to 20-30% of their populations. ORGCAS was founded to reverse this situation. Its principal aim is to convert shark fishers into tourist guides - to protect the species they use to hunt, i.e. becoming the main defenders of shark conservation.


“The main aim of ORGCAS is to convert shark fishers into tourist guides to protect the species they once hunted”


Leading this initiative is a group of women who founded the NGO. They are biologists, communicators, lawyers, and others. They come from different walks of life with one mission in mind: to enable the hunters to switch profession. In this way the environment wins, the fishers win, and the sharks also win. Find out more about this amazing project in the following video.

Right from the start, the ORGCAS project has been delivering promising results in shark conservation. The populations in the areas monitored are recovering and local communities are becoming increasingly involved in, and committed to, marine conservation. The combination of education, protection and sustainable economic development has created a replicable model that can be applied in other regions of the world.

The regeneration of sharks is crucial to maintain the health of marine ecosystems and the prosperity of the fishing communities. Projects like ORGCAS show that – through commitment, education and collaboration – it is possible to reverse the decline of these vital species. If we are to advance toward a more sustainable future, protection of sharks must be a priority in the global conservation agenda, ensuring healthy oceans for the generations to come.