The creators of "Jaws" had it backwards. People prey on sharks far more than sharks prey on people.
Demand for Shark Fin Soup Fuels Species Decline
Shark fins have no taste and no nutritional value, but they're nonetheless a hot commodity in Asia. People consider shark fin soup a high-status, luxury dish, and their demand for the soup fuels the decline of shark populations around the world.
To feed that craving, fishing fleets capture millions of sharks each year, cut off their fins, and in many cases, toss the dying animals back out to sea to make more cargo space on board for the fins. Slow to mature, sharks are often killed before they have a chance to reproduce. As a result, 20 percent of all sharks and their closest relatives are threatened with extinction, according to the most recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
It's Worse Than We Thought
The shark fin trade is perhaps three to four times larger than previously estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the main monitoring database for the world's fisheries. According to a paper published in the October 2006 edition of Ecology Letters, co-authored by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, an estimated 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.
Sharks are increasingly rare in places like Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape and Mexico’s Gulf of California. And fewer sharks in our waters could mean more problems for the rest of us. As some of our oceans' most important ecosystem regulators, sharks play a crucial role in the function of food webs that support entire ecosystems.
"Wholesale removal of top predators from ecosystems will very likely bring unexpected and undesirable problems," says Scott Henderson, Conservation International's (CI) coordinator for the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Program.
But there are ways to keep sharks safe, the simplest being to abstain from eating shark fin soup and to spread the word among friends and family to do the same. Beyond that, further protecting sharks requires extensive collaboration among scientists and governments around the world.
Different regions abide by different laws when it comes to shark finning. To best protect sharks, it's critical to align those policies across boundaries. Sharks, after all, do not confine their movements to man-made borders.
"The issue here is an ocean-wide issue: How do we protect these species, wherever they swim?" says one of the first scientists to tag sharks, A. Peter Klimley, Ph.D., who directs University of California-Davis' Biotelemetry Laboratory.
VIDEO: Shark Tagging
Working across borders, a collaborative shark-tagging project in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean enables scientists to collect much-needed data in a region where sharks still swim in abundance. There, scientists from CI and partner organizations, including the Charles Darwin Research Station, Malpelo Foundation, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Pretoma, and the Stanford-University-based Tagging of Pacific Pelagics program, track scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), and Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) from Costa Rica to Ecuador. They do so by attaching satellite and acoustic tags to them to learn more about how they move in relation to environmental factors.
Their aim is to provide decision-makers with solid science about these species. By studying where sharks live and how they travel, researchers can get a better idea of where to focus conservation plans, policy pushes, and resources in order to maximize efforts to keep sharks safe.
Armed with scientific research, conservationists can educate policy-makers and industrial and artisanal fishermen about what needs to be done, and where and how to better care for sharks. Governments can also use the research to develop conservation policies that change behaviors and protect these species. Policies and conservation plans adopted across entire seascapes like the Eastern Tropical Pacific will ensure more comprehensive shark protection.
"We need to work in these fields with authorities, with the people who are consuming, and with the people who are hunting sharks in order to ensure that we achieve effective conservation," says Alex Hearn, a scientist with the Galapagos' Charles Darwin Research Station.
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