One question that Drew often fields about the missing species is whether the Gilbertese simply traded for those shark teeth.
“We're making the implicit assumption that the teeth on the weapons came from the reefs where the people were fishing,” he said. But the island is also extremely remote. In addition, Drew said there’s no archaeological, ethnographic or linguistic evidence that the Gilbertese people traded with anyone in areas where those shark species are found today.
Commercial shark fishing in the Gilbert Islands was known as far back as 1910. Shark fins were easy to trade because they kept without refrigeration, didn’t weigh much, and the value per ounce was high, Drew said. The capital had a largely Chinese immigrant population that, as it grew, saw opportunities to ship shark fins to China. By the 1950s, the Gilbert Islands were exporting more than 6,500 pounds of shark fins annually.
“They’re large fish, they grow slowly, they don’t give birth until they’re fairly old, and when they do give birth they don’t give birth to a lot,” Drew said. “It’s a perfect combination if you were trying to come up with a species to drive to extinction, which is really unfortunate for sharks.”