The $20 Trillion Reason Why Richard Branson Wants to Save Sharks

The ocean ecosystem is being destroyed from seabed to surface due to toxic chemical waste, overfishing, and species depletion—including 70 million annual shark deaths.

Richard Branson attends a news conference organized by Wildaid, a wildlife conservation group, to promote shark conservation in Shanghai. (Photo: Aly Song/Reuters)

Aug 14, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is the founder of the Virgin Group.

Whale sharks don’t want you for dinner. I know this because I’ve been halfway inside the mouth of one, swimming off the coast of Mexico, and it simply spat me out. These gentle giants can grow to weigh more than 20 tonnes and measure over 12 metres long, but they are among the most majestic and serene creatures in the sea. However, I am saddened to know that they are a highly vulnerable species, their very existence threatened primarily due to commercial fishing. Recently, I’ve had the chance to swim with many other shark species—Tiger, Lemon, Reef, even Great White!—in support of our campaign with Virgin Unite and WildAID to ban shark finning and protect the ocean.

Now you might be asking yourself, what do sharks and ocean conservation have to do with business? Quite simply, the ocean sustains life on our planet, delivering half of our oxygen and providing an estimated $20 trillion worth of natural resources and services a year. Without healthy aquatic ecosystems we would lose the natural resources on which life—and business—depend. Sadly, the ocean ecosystem is being destroyed from seabed to surface due to toxic chemical waste, overfishing, and species depletion. 

One of the reasons I first decided to put my weight behind ocean conservation was my intense reaction to Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater, about the plight of sharks around the world. I was shocked to learn that high demand for shark fin soup was driving the vicious slaughter of over 70 million sharks a year, which are brutally left to die after their fins are cut off.

In September 2011, I teamed up with basketball star Yao Ming in Shanghai to call for a ban on shark fin soup—which could save tens of millions of sharks a year. Recently, the Chinese government took the symbolic step to ban shark fin at state banquets, and we have learned that demand for shark fin has dropped so dramatically that prices are down by as much as 60 percent in China.

Rob’s most recent film project, Revolution, makes the larger point that the risks to sharks’ existence represent greater threats to the sustainability of the ocean, and in turn to the whole natural world. Encouragingly, a recent study by the Global Ocean Commission shows that the overwhelming majority of people around the world understand the fundamental importance of the ocean for life on our planet. According to the study, 85 percent of people believe that “governments must take the needs of future generations into account when deciding how international parts of the ocean should be used and governed.”

A wonderful group who share this belief is the OceanElders, a collective of leaders working with partners to protect, value, and celebrate the ocean and its wildlife. I am fortunate to be a part of the group, alongside Jackson Browne, Dr. Sylvia A Earle, HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, Dr. Rita Colwell, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Graeme Kelleher, Sven Lindblad, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Ted Turner, Nainoa Thompson, Captain Don Walsh and Neil Young. The latest member to join is James Cameron, a longtime activist and believer in the positive impact of the ocean and the need to conserve it.

So far the OceanElders have made significant breakthroughs on issues from creating nature reserves to banning shark finning. However, as well as the support of brilliant groups like this, there is a tremendous groundswell of support for ocean conservation on social media. We have seen overwhelming responses on social media to campaigns to save sharks, manta rays and reefs. These illustrate how every single one of us can help to protect the ocean.

So are you are interested in getting your feet wet? Join one of these initiatives to help save the sharks and conserve the ocean:

- Stand up for sharks! Don’t eat shark fin soup, go diving and snorkelling with sharks, and encourage your friends to do the same. Learn more and get involved with our partners WildAID and SharkSavers.

- Sign the I’m FINished with Fins petition here to support the end of shark finning in Hong Kong.

- Mind your energy use, help take care of the beach, or influence positive change in your community. Check out 10 simple things everyone can do to help save the ocean from National Geographic.

- Join the OceanElders community to share ideas and solutions and kick-start action to benefit the ocean.

- Learn about our foundation, Virgin Unite, jump in to our global community, and FUNdraise for issues you care about.

- Sign up for an event, donate, and explore a wealth of resources at the Carbon War Room.

- Watch the Revolution trailer and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

- Schoolhouse rock! Are you an educator?  Get ideas for inspiring and informing your students about shark and ocean conservation.