How to Save Sharks From Extinction

Better monitoring and the creation of marine preserves could help combat overfishing in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

(Photo: Rodrigo Friscione/Getty Images)

Dec 17, 2015· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

For some people, the sight of a shark fin cutting through the surface of the ocean inspires feelings of either fear or awe.

For others, that fin inspires something entirely different.

Greed.

Around the world, the fishing industry targets an ever-increasing number of sharks to feed the voracious global demand for shark meat and fins. The meat of many species is consumed in countries throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. The fins of a smaller number of shark species end up in a traditional (and expensive) Chinese delicacy called shark fin soup.

By recent estimates, around 100 million sharks are caught every year. Consumption of shark, meanwhile, increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2010. As a result of this rampant overfishing—much of which occurs in international waters or in disputed territories such as the biodiversity-rich South China Sea—some species have declined by as much as 90 percent and face the very real threat of extinction.

Most of this trade, conservationists say, is legal but poorly regulated. “It’s not managed at all,” said Ben Freitas, oceans program officer for the World Wildlife Fund. “There are a lot of fisheries where there are no rules in place governing the catch of sharks or finning of sharks. Technically it’s legal, but it’s still unsustainable.”

A significant portion, however, is illegal. “The trade in shark fins is a huge black market activity,” Freitas said. “It’s an incredibly valuable commodity. There are ties to criminal organizations. It’s very similar to the trade in other wildlife products.”

(See Pete Bethune and his team investigate illegal fishing in the South China Sea in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Dec. 20, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

The collective damage of this overfishing adds up. “Sharks are intrinsically vulnerable just based on their biology,” Freitas said. “These are long-lived animals with relatively low reproductive rates. They’re sensitive to any kind of fishing pressure.”

Meanwhile, the decline of shark populations can throw entire areas of the ocean out of balance. “They are apex predators, so they have this important role to play in marine ecosystems for the health of the overall environment,” Freitas said.

Experts say that one of the biggest problems beyond the sheer volume of sharks killed is that scientists don’t truly understand exactly which sharks are being killed and how they died. Many countries log in the sharks they import simply as “shark,” not by specific species, so it’s not always known which species are being overexploited.

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“It is difficult to understand well from the available data how many sharks died as a result of finning versus whole landing, whether meat or fins were the driving factor in capture, if both were landed, how many were discarded dead, and other details,” said Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International.

There has been progress toward tackling these unsustainable practices. A number of nations have banned the practice of cutting off a shark’s fins at sea and dumping the rest of the body—often still alive—back into the ocean. As shark biologist David Shiffman (who tweets under the name Why Sharks Matter) has noted, this wasteful and “shockingly inhumane” practice can quickly deplete a shark population, because a single boat can then carry the fins from a much larger number of animals than if it had to bring the entire shark to port.

Meanwhile, public awareness campaigns and a push to regulate the trade have started to make a difference. Shark fin soup consumption is reportedly beginning to decline in China, and the sale of shark fins has been banned in some U.S. states, although the total consumption of shark meat everywhere continues to climb.

Despite this progress, there’s still a long way to go. Shark fins receive the bulk of the publicity when it comes to sharks, but Fordham said she’s concerned that the trade in shark meat does not get enough attention and that the growing trade in a related group of species, rays, has gone “largely unnoticed, even within countries that have championed shark conservation.”

Establishing more marine protected areas for sharks could help, especially for some of the large, coastal species that are most targeted for their fins. “MPAs and other sanctuary areas for sharks often serve as important protections,” Freitas said. “They help to strengthen marine ecosystems both for sharks and other species, including coral reefs and commercial fish stocks.”

But a study published this month in Nature Scientific Reports found that the ranges of most shark species do not currently overlap with existing MPAs. A proposed MPA in the South China Sea, along with Indonesia’s pledge to expand conservation along many coastal habitats by the year 2020, could begin to alleviate some of those pressures in the near future, but for now they remain ineffective.

Fordham said she has hope because the public has become more concerned about sharks. That is driving more and stronger safeguards. “We do, however, need to pick up the pace of that progress and also ensure that effects are objectively monitored, reported, and amended as necessary,” she said. Only when scientists know what’s going on at the docks and in the most remote areas of the ocean can it be ensured that sharks will continue to swim around the world.