Say What?! Science Says 25 Percent of Sharks and Rays Face Extinction

Just one-third of the sharks and rays living in our oceans "are considered safe," according to a new study.

A sawfish clings to the ocean floor off the coast of Australia. (Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

It’s no secret that overfishing and other human activities are killing the ocean’s sharks at an unprecedented rate—more than 100 million a year, or 11,000 dead sharks every hour of every day—but the global stress put on sharks, as well as rays, had never been scientifically calculated until now.

A new study of shark, ray, and cartilage-containing fish species has found that 25 percent of more than 1,000 species examined are threatened with extinction. The study, conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and published in the journal Elife, concluded that just one-third of the species “are considered safe.”

Overfishing, both intentional and as bycatch, is the root cause of the vast majority of the deaths. And global shark finning—the cruel process in which fishermen slice off sharks’ dorsal fins before tossing them back into the water to die—continues almost unabated, despite regional bans.

Hot spots considered “particularly dangerous” for sharks and rays include “the Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle, especially the Gulf of Thailand and the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea,” says Sonja Fordham, a report coauthor and deputy chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.

The United States has its own set of species under heavy fishing pressure, especially skates, a type of ray. "Tens of millions of pounds of them," says Fordham, are taken each year off the coast of New England mostly for export to Europe and Asia, though much is used as bait by the domestic lobster industry.

She is also concerned about the cow-nosed ray, which migrates through the Chesapeake Bay each spring, devouring up to 100,000 oysters per day, prompting oyster farmers to post signs exhorting consumers to “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray.” Not only has the state of Virginia not set any catch limits on the fish, but local merchants hawk their consumption at restaurants, supermarkets, and food festivals. Problem is, the brown, kite-shaped stingrays only have one offspring each year, making them “biologically incapable of a population explosion,” Fordham says.

Another hard-hit ray species is the sawfish—which has a snout shaped like a double-sided saw. “People know about the global trade in shark fins, but few know that some of the most valuable fins that are used in shark fin soup come from sharklike rays—species like sawfish,” Fordham told NPR. Once found along the entire East Coast, they now only live in Florida. “We have a recovery plan for them, but funding through Congress has been declining each year,” she adds.

Sharks and rays, of course, have gotten a bad rap in human history and popular culture. Anyone who’s seen Jaws or been stung by a ray probably maintains a degree of fear and loathing toward the ancient fish. But despite the pain and death they can inflict on people, they deserve our respect and need our help.

“Our existence, in part, is dependent on theirs,” Julie Anderson, founder of the conservation group Shark Angels, wrote in an email. “Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain for over 400 million years. All that life is kept healthy by sharks, who, as apex predators, regulate the oceans.”

Still, it’s hard to get people excited about saving sharks and rays. “The whole world is covering the culling of sharks in Australia, yet [that situation] doesn’t compare to what’s going on elsewhere,” Fordham says. “Maybe people have shark fatigue.” Maybe they do. But they should remember this: By saving these ancient species, they could very well be saving themselves.