While it’s no secret that globally we’re annihilating shark populations, the actual numbers behind our mass destruction of these creatures have remained elusive—until now.
According to a recent study reported by LiveScience, an estimated average of 100 million sharks are killed by fisheries each year. And the actual death toll may reach even higher than that.
Researchers studied the available data on shark deaths and combined it with approximations of illegal catches. They determined that about 100 million sharks were killed in 2000, and in 2010, that number dipped ever so slightly to 97 million. Because illegal shark fishing (obviously) goes unreported, scientists estimate that those annual numbers could actually go as high as 273 million. That’s not a series of kills, it’s a massacre.
But the most disturbing part of the story isn’t necessarily what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it. By far and away, the most popular reason for killing sharks is simple—it’s soup, shark fin soup.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy in East Asia, prized for what cultural folklore dictates is its magical power to bestow virility and health on those who consume it. But in reality, it’s an act of supreme cruelty; sharks caught for this purpose often have their fins hacked off while they’re still alive. Many are tossed back into the ocean to bleed out.
As Westerners, it’s easy to wag our fingers at our Eastern neighbors and their shark fin soup, but in truth, we hold equal responsibility. Elissa Sursara, an Australian environmental conservationist, previously reported on TakePart that nations like Australia, Canada and the United States host the local and international shark fishing vessels responsible for supplying Asian nations with fins.
It’s a lucrative industry, and though U.S. populations may not consume shark fin soup, as a country, we’re major exporters of the ingredient that creates it.
And it’s not just shark fin soup; sharks are also killed for their liver oil and cartilage, which is a kind of snake oil treatment that claims to cure cancer. In addition, the animal’s meat is harvested for use as a seafood filler in restaurants.
No matter the impetus, this aggressive overfishing is pushing some shark species to the brink of extinction. As apex predators, these animals balance our ocean’s ecosystem, but because they’re slow to reproduce, constant blows to their populations could render a disastrous domino effect.
That’s why in California, great white sharks gained some desperately needed protection when they were recently named as candidates for a listing under the state’s Endangered Species Act.
Reuters reports that juvenile great whites are often caught off the California coast as “bycatch”—the unintentional killing that occurs when the sharks become entangled in nets meant to ensnare other fish like white sea bass and halibut.
The great white’s Endangered Species candidacy means fishermen are now required to apply for special permits, allowing them only a limited number of accidental shark kills and requiring them to follow strict prevention guidelines.
Harming Endangered Species candidates carries the same legal consequences as harming animals that are officially listed. The Fish and Wildlife Department will reportedly make their final recommendation on the great white’s fate by next February.
As for the rest of the global shark population, help is slow in coming.
While sharks are often thought of as a danger to humans, the truth is their attacks on people remain rare, and fatal ones are even more unusual than that. While we continue to imagine these creatures as some sort of ocean-dwelling boogeyman, the reality is sharks are much more likely to be killed by us than we are by them.
Would you eat shark fin soup? What kind of legal consequences should shark finners face? Let us know in the Comments.