Academy researchers worry about shark population


The Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands -- a spectacular wonderland.

Scientists spent more than a month off the island of Luzon searching for all kinds of life.

Divers focused on an area known to have the world's richest coral reefs, now with a big exception.

"Only saw two sharks during 1,000 dives," Academy of Sciences researcher John McCosker, Ph.D., said.

McCosker is one of the world's top shark experts. He says 30 years ago, things were very different.

"Every time I'd be in the water, I'd be surrounded by sharks; there were sharks everywhere, I was kind of nervous at first, but I got over it when I realized those sharks weren't dangerous sharks," McCosker said.

McCosker says the disappearance of sharks is what is really dangerous. He blames overfishing.

"The removal of top predators like sharks that are so critical to reef ecology causes a downward collapse and cascade, a spiral where you have eco-system collapse," McCosker said.

One way researchers figure out which fish are left in the ocean is to see what is for sale in fish markets like one they visited in Manila.

"We didn't see any sharks in the fish market, not because they don't want to sell them, but the sharks are all gone," McCosker said.

The academy team also spent a week on a research boat in the deep sea off the Philippines.

"We haven't seen a single shark at the surface," McCosker said.

But they did find more than a dozen small sharks 1,500-3,000 feet deep.

Researchers saw what is believed to be a new species of swell shark with the ability to change body shape -- sometimes sleek and streamlined and sometimes roly-poly.

"That's nothing, when they are in their habitat and they are frightened by a larger predator, they'll swallow enough water to look like bowling ball with fins on it," McCosker said.

The new-found sharks were treated like celebrities by scientists - excited by the discovery, but worried about the worldwide decline.

"About a decade ago, sharks started to disappear and disappear by as many as 73 million a year, primarily to have their fins cut off to be sold to the Asian community for shark fin soup," McCosker said.

Several of the new sharks are being brought back to San Francisco for research, but most were returned gently to the water to spawn a new generation.

Researchers hope other sharks will get the same chance.

"Life in the ocean depends on it," McCosker said.

The California Assembly has already passed a ban on the sale of shark fins. The Senate is expected to consider the bill next month.

ABC7 News spent two weeks in the Philippines with the California Academy of Sciences and will be reporting all summer on the expedition.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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