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Shark Encounters at the Sydney Aquarium

(DiverWire) With the world’s attention on the decline of shark population and shark finning, an opportunity recently arose to gain some insight about what our Australian friends “down under”’s attitude about the plight of this endangered animal might be.  As the visit occurred in Sydney, opinions could vary throughout the country, however it was certainly a great starting place.

The informational journey started at the Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbour, meeting with Marine Biologist Amy Wilkes, the aquarium’s Senior Aquarist.  There is an area designated for the guests to meet the shark when first walking into the main hall. There are several different informational displays, surrounding a full-sized model of an animated Great White shark.  An impressive part of the exhibit shows where Australian conservationists have a realtime tracking program which tracks tagged Great White and Bull Sharks by satellite, which is an effective display that helps visitors become more aware of the endangered animals, yet the aquarium attempts to keep these displays from being, as Amy put it “too much in your face.”  There is more of a focus on visuals instead of text.  The Curators of the Aquarium want to find more subtle ways to get message across, yet still find many ways to do so, such as inviting advocates such as Rob Stewart of Sharkwater to speak at the facility.

After visiting with Amy, one would wonder if the tracking display and the others were enough to give the Australian people the same awareness and concern that is so prevalent in the States, however wandering the beautiful shark enclosure could certainly change a person’s point of view.  It wasn’t only the shark tank, but what was across from it in the hall.  There are text displays for each decade and how the attitude over time has changed.  They are brilliant, informative, creative, compelling.  For example, the first display dated “The 1960’s”, points out that until then there was little mention in the media and people also knew little about them.  “The 1970‘s” refer to the movie Jaws, demonizing the shark, and how people became so afraid of sharks as a result.  The displays move along through the decades, pointing out facts and the changes of each. Towards the end are displays which discuss the current crisis, referring to finning and bycatch (the disposal of the unwanted parts of the animal or animals), overfishing, pollution, and global warming, to name some mentioned.  These wonderful displays capture the tone the curators are looking for, subtle messages with a strong impact.

While leaving though the gift shop/exit, there was a small area about general ocean conservation, while the majority of shark merchandise still marketed fear with the T-shirts, models, keychains, there was even a display selling the movie “Jaws”.  Author Peter Benchley had publicly stated he regretted making the film, by feeling he helped precipitate the publics’ perceived fear of the shark. In a 2002 interview with National Geographic, he stated “We knew so little back then, and have learned so much since, that I couldn’t possibly write the same story today. I know now that the mythic monster I created was largely a fiction. I also know now, however, that the genuine animal is just as—if not even more—fascinating.”  On the other hand, movies which promote awareness and conservation, such as “Sharkwater” was not to be found.

On the other side of Darling Harbour is where Chinatown is located. Wandering around the different restaurants and eateries, there was no evidence of sharkfin products.  Yet, according to Amy the soup is available, although it is not prevalent or obvious.  Apparently the cost is approximately $40 compared to up to $120 a bowl in the US.  Amy suspects that because the entire shark is being used, there is legal product available for consumption.  This may be the reason that costs are less than that in the States. As everywhere else, the concern not only is limited to the actual population decline by finning, but also the contaminants, as mercury becomes concentrated in the fin and dense cartilage. The popular Fish and Chips dish is largely where the rest of the shark is being used, eliminating most of the bycatch that occurs by finning.  One of the “fish” choices is called Flake, which is a generic term for shark, using the gummy or dogfish, but not limited to those species.

According to the Australia’s 2011 National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, two areas of concern regarding finning are mentioned, actual finning and bycatch.  “Full utilization of dead sharks and an improved understanding of the markets for and trade in shark products,” as well as “improved anti-finning regulations and the use of trade related mechanisms were identified by the Review as areas for consideration in the development of [the] plan.”  How the government plans to implement this is by consistency regarding anti-finning measures for all Australian fisheries, regulation and compliance.  The plan focuses on reducing or if possible, eliminating shark bycatch. The plan also “advocates more effective bycatch mitigation methods in the acknowledgement that the impact of fisheries on non-target stocks should be as little as possible…[by Initiating] action (as required) to ensure effective bycatch reduction methods are developed and introduced in all fisheries in which shark are caught as bycatch, giving priority to species identified through risk assessment as ‘high risk’.”  This assertive plan gives these two area 12 months to two years for implementation.  To read the entire report, it may be found at

Australia does protect many sharks which are managed by the Australian government fisheries. For instance, two that are on the endangered species list are the Great White and Grey Nurse, which are showing signs of rebounding in Australian waters. Commercial fisheries are required to have licenses and restricted to quotas, so it appears that since the product is available, there is less bycatch and shark products tend to be regulated.  Amy believes that awareness is behind by a few years as in the states, but the country and the government are moving forward.  The Australian Government is working to set up marine reserves around the country, with hopes of protection from damage caused by human interaction. The website to support this effort is at To find out more about what is happening with ocean conservation in Australia, visit With education programs instituted in such places as the aquariums through Australia, and government involvement, it is hopeful that it is only a matter of time that healthy shark populations in that part of our world will also begin to rebound.

For more information about The Sydney Aquarium

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