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Dispatches : Adventure

George Burgess Talks About Shark Finning and Conservation

Shutterstock_101559460Shark fins. Photo: Elira/Shutterstock

In 2000, a graduate student at the Imperial College of London named Shelley Clarke began using shark fin data from the auction houses of Hong Kong and the ports of Taiwan to estimate how many sharks, and what species, were heading off for sale at the world’s biggest market. She used her data to estimate a global take of 38 million sharks a year—though she said that that number could be as low as 26 million and as high as 73 million.

Her paper was important in that it provided the first scientific estimate for the number of sharks being traded based on the take of fins, offering scientists and fisheries managers a number for the global shark trade they could rely on. Though people in many countries eat shark flesh, fins are the most valuable part of the fish. As a result, fins made it to market, while bodies often didn’t. Some fishermen sliced the fins off and let the live sharks drown. Others took the fins off dead sharks, but with no set rules in place, there was no way to tell. As a result, many countries have now required shark fins to be taken ashore with the corresponding body. Most recently, the European Union ruled that fishermen must take the fins and the body to dock.

There are 471 species of sharks in the world, and scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have categorized at least 73 of them as threatened. The truth is, scientists know very little about almost half of those species—212 shark species are categorized as data deficient. To find out more about the conservation status of sharks and finning, we talked to George Burgess, a vice chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.

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George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

Shutterstock_106591796Great white shark. Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock

Most people know George Burgess as the kahuna of shark attacks. For more than 20 years, Burgess has overseen the International Shark Attack File, a detailed listing of toothy maulings that goes back to the 1500s. He’s been quoted everywhere from The New York Times to the Discovery Channel. Burgess took on that gigwhich requires the orderliness of a librarian, the exactitude of a scientist, and the speaking skills of a public relations whiz—as a result of a voracious appetite for anything having to do with sharks, which he's had since he was a kid. “We all get excited about something as we’re growing up, whether it's sharks or Star Wars,” he says. “Sometimes people are lucky enough to follow along on their early interests, and I always knew early on that I wanted to study marine biology and that was where I was headed all the way through high school and college.”

As a teenager, he caught a nurse shark off the coast of Florida and was hooked. By the 1970s, he was attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina and catching sharks off a research boat. Now, in addition to running the International Shark Attack File, he also serves as the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, teaches ichthyology and marine biology at the University of Florida, and serves as a vice chairman of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, an international organization committed to the science and conservation of sharks and rays. As a result, he was more than happy to talk to us about two things: shark attacks in 2012 and the conservation status of sharks. We’ve divided that interview into two parts.

Up first, we talked to Burgess about the overall increase in shark attacks over the last century, Western Australia’s recent decision to hunt great whites before they attack people, and how climate change could affect the overall number of shark attacks. 

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Surviving a Great White Shark Attack

Shutterstock_89941513-1Great white shark. Photo: David Stephens/Shutterstock

On the morning of October 30, 2012, surfer Scott Stephens paddled out to a local break near Eureka, California, and was attacked by a great white shark. Here’s his story, with analysis of the attack by international shark attack expert George Burgess, as told to Joe Spring.

I’m 25 years old and I live in Samoa, California, which is just outside of Eureka. On October 30, I went down to the beach about 10:00 a.m. It’s only about 10 minutes from my house. It’s BLM land, so you can drive right out on the sand and park. It was just a beautiful morning—really calm offshore winds, a really high tide, and real clean, six-foot waves. I drove down to the beach and just watched for half an hour, figuring where I wanted to go out. There were about 20 guys in the water at a spot called Bunkers, which breaks just north of the jetty that is the harbor entrance to Humboldt Bay.

My buddy called me and said, “How do the waves look?”

I said, “How do you know I’m checking the surf right now?”

He said, “I know you too well. I’ll meet you out there.”

And so I went out.

I put on my new Xcel 5-4 wetsuit, which I had worn—maybe—a handful of times. I ran along the jetty and jumped in, letting the current take me out. I didn’t really have to paddle too much. It was about a quarter-mile to Bunkers. The wave breaks in pretty deep water about 500 yards from shore. It’s probably one of the furthest out spots that I surf. The waves just seem to funnel in through that channel and then break on the sandbar—A-frames that go right and left.

I went inside most of the guys out there because I’m a shorter guy and I ride a little bit shorter board. I sat where the waves were going to break right on me. I went both right and left, but toward the end, I just went left. I caught three in a row, and that put me further down the beach. I was separated from everyone else by about 150 yards. By that time there was about 10 people left. I had been surfing for more than an hour and a half.

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This Week's Missing Links, December 15

The best articles, photos, and videos that I didn't post this week—until now. If you only click on one thing, make it "A Soap Opera on the High Seas," by Charles Homans.

For the best longreads of the week, check out "Weekend Reading: If You Love Them."

A profile of the man behind "Deadliest Catch,"
The New York Times Magazine

The Taliban blew up my climbing wall, Adventure Journal

On the end of the tall tale, Outside

Oscar Pistorius races ... a horse? In Qatar? YouTube

What happens with a 10.1 100m sprinter when you put him on a rugby pitch? YouTube via David Epstein

Everything you wanted to know about the catch of that 445-pound yellowfin tuna, including why it isn't a world record, San Diego Union Telegram

Wait, Shackleton left whisky behind? DHL

What's your Himalayan IQ? Outside

Snowboarder Jeremy Jones wants you to learn from his mistakes, Jones Snowboards

Surfer Taylor Knox retires, Surfer

Diary of a Yosemite climbing steward, Alpinist

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The Most Inspiring Use of a Wavejet Surfboard Yet

Wavejets are surfboards with an electronic propulsion system. Users wear a wrist controller with a button that turns the board on and off. The company markets the high-tech planks to individuals who want to spend more time surfing and less time paddling, catch mushy waves, or drop into giants without a tow-in. Those uses are all interesting, but the most inspiring testament to the power of the invention was released yesterday.

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