Every year an estimated 170 million sharks are killed each year by human activity. These numbers are completely unsustainable and could easily lead to the extinct of all the sharks of the world. One of the number one causes of death is fishing. Fishing has a huge impact on shark species and it is crucial that we begin to address these issues in order to promote shark conservation. There are several ways that fishing impacts shark species, here are the most dangerous:
Shark fins are considered an important medicinal food in China and a delicacy for gourmet chefs all over the world. Once the food of the rich Chinese aristocracy, as people in China become more economically mobile, there has been increased demand for shark fin, specifically for shark fin soup. Shark fins have a very high market value, so fisherman have increased this practice exponentially over the last decade. Shark finning is the number one killer of sharks. Some estimates suggest that 73 million sharks are killed every year by shark finning, while others have the number as high as 273 million because there is no reliable tracking of these deaths.
Shark finning is an incredibly brutal practice. Sharks are caught with lures or in large nets and either pulled aboard a ship where they suffocate or with larger sharks, kept trapped in the nets alongside a boat. The fishermen then chop off all the fins of the shark and throw their bodies back into the water. Without fins, sharks cannot swim, so they are forced to slowly sink to the bottom of the ocean. Many sharks will suffocate because they are ram breathers while others will be forced to slowly bleed out until they die. It is truly a wasteful and horrible practice.
Another major threat from fishing is overfishing shark species. Most sharks have long reproductive periods, some carrying their pups for three years, while others don’t reach sexual maturity until they are decades old. So fishing sharks for meat needs to be done very carefully as not to overtax populations. Unfortunately, in many countries there are no regulations concerning how many sharks can be fished every year. So in these areas, sharks species are being depleted faster than they can replenish.
Overfishing is a huge problem because the regulations have to be done on a case by case basis and there are many governments that are more concerned about meeting population pressures and building their economy, than working to preserve the species. This issue is then compounded by the demand for shark fins and the high market value of shark products for food, medicine, and leather.
Pirate fishing is basically black market fishing. Pirate fisherman operate outside of any regulatory standards. They will fish in protected waters, fish critically endangered species, and not follow any standards on fishing limitations. With the high market price of shark products, pirate fishing of sharks has boomed in the last decade.
The biggest issue with pirate fishing is like most criminal activities, there is very little that can be done about it. Pirate fishing is an international issue so it is hard to have a regulatory body that can create and enforce legal restrictions on pirate fishermen. Furthermore, pirate fishermen are especially hard to track because they will navigate all the world’s oceans and will often fish well outside of established government boundaries in international waters. So even if we had effective global conservation legislation to combat overfishing, there is still going to be criminals that operate outside any agreed upon global laws.
Fishing bycatch is another huge threat to shark populations. When fisherman cast large nets to catch common food fishes like tuna, mackerel, or anchovies, they often unintentionally catch sharks. Fishing nets trigger panic in schooling fish, which sharks detect in the water. They will come to investigate and potentially feed on the fish, but will instead get caught in the nets.
When a shark gets caught in a fishing net there are a couple of things that can happen. The first is they will be pulled aboard onto a fishing boat with the rest of the catch and either finned or killed and dumped back into the water. The second is that getting trapped in the net will cause them to struggle to free themselves and they will ultimately suffocate or hang themselves in the net. In either case, it is a very brutal and wasteful way to die.
Nearly every species of sharks of the world is under threat by fishing bycatch. There are shark resistant nets that fisherman can employ but they are often more costly than regular nets, so they are rarely used in commercial fishing. Even with improvements in nets, getting caught as bycatch continues to threat shark populations.
What Can Be Done?
There’s a lot that can be done to end the threat of fishing against sharks. First of all, you can make sure you don’t consume any products that contain shark meat, leather, or oils. Secondly, you can support legislation that is targeted to prevent shark fishing and finning, prosecute pirate fisherman, and encourage the use of shark-proof nets. Finally, you can educate others on how the consumption of sharks is leading to huge threats to their populations and help reduce the market demand for these products.
Sharks are being killed at a rate in which the species cannot replenish themselves. The biggest killer is from fishing. There are a few things you can do to help put an end to commercial fishing before all shark species become extinct. If we can stop shark fishing or at least reduce it, we can then begin to implement conservation programs that will support reproduction and hopefully save the sharks of the world before they disappear forever.