Blue shark, © Mark Conlin/NOAA

Stand up for Sharks


John Yeingst, Communications Coordinator

Well folks, it’s that time of the year again…it’s Shark Week!  Time to sit back and sink your teeth into a whole week of shark-focused entertainment, with rare footage of airborne great whites and explorations through shark-infested waters.  But as entertaining as Shark Week is, what we really need to understand is that these misunderstood creatures of the deep play a critical role in our ecosystem, and that we humans are far more dangerous to sharks than they are to us.

©Chris Hartzell

©Chris Hartzell

Sharks are feared for being predators of the ocean, and are too often considered mindless killing machines.  Steven Spielberg’s 1975 American thriller ‘Jaws’ is responsible for some of that, but reality is a lot more complex. While sharks are certainly top predators, it’s that very role that makes them vital to maintaining a healthy food chain.  In fact, we have a lot to fear from the consequences of losing these ocean dwellers.

When shark populations drop, the balance of marine ecosystems are disrupted, which is bad news because today, many shark species that were once considered profuse among oceans are now facing the threat of extinction.  Up to 100 million sharks are killed each year, usually caught for their fins to make shark fin soup, or as bycatch from nets or lines set for other fish.  Shark fining is a macabre business.  Since the fins alone can bring in more money, fisherman chop off the fin and hurl the shark overboard, where it endures a painful end as it bleeds to death.

A NOAA agent counts confiscated shark fins.

A NOAA agent counts confiscated shark fins.

All hope is not lost though; sharks are beginning to get the more positive attention they deserve.  Recently, shark conservation efforts have progressed as nations are becoming more aware of the dramatic decline in their numbers.  With the help of a variety conservation groups, states and territories from around the world, sharks may stand a chance.  Ten states and territories in the U.S. – including California, Washington, Delaware and Hawaii – have already passed laws prohibiting the trade or ownership of shark fins.  Recently, New York became the eighth state to pass such a ban, which is a great victory for shark conservation.  New York is the largest entry point for shark fins on the East Coast, and one of the largest shark fin markets outside of Asia.  Shark fin soup has been a traditional delicacy and a highly profitable item sold in New York’s, Chinatown. Making the sale of shark fins illegal in the state will deal a serious blow to the trade in the US.

There is still a lot of work to be done, however.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is now out to regulate states and territories looking to ban shark finning, which would be a huge step backward.

oceanic whitetip shark

An oceanic whitetip shark, one of five shark species we supported at CITES this year (©Peter Koelbl)

That threat just reinforces why our work is so important. For years, Defenders has fought an uphill battle over the shark fin trade, and we won some recent victories at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): oceanic whitetips, porbeagle and three species of hammerhead can finally swim with a little more ease, as more strict regulations are put in place to protect them from the demands of the fin trade on an international level. We’re continuing to work with countries around the world to help them adapt as these new rules are put into place. One way we’re helping is by creating shark identification guides like this one for different regions. Using these guides, officials are better able to identify sharks and their fins, and enforce the rules that apply to that species.

We’re also working to cut back on the issue of bycatch, which is not as gruesome as finning but equally deadly. Our ID guides help here too; with these on hand, no one can claim they didn’t realize the shark they caught was a protected species. And we continue to reach out to fisheries organizations to make sure that shark conservation always has a voice in their discussions about policies and practices.

While so many people are focused on sharks this week, let’s make sure that the entertainment factor doesn’t eclipse the truth: these ancient predators have been swimming our oceans for millions of years, but today, many species are in danger of disappearing. Humans are behind this dangerous decline, and it’s up to us to help sharks recover so they can continue to serve their important role in our oceans for years to come.

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