When we talk about endangered species around the globe, we often reference the high ly regarded IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It contains 465 shark species that have been assessed by the organization. There are four categories: near threatened, vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered.
Not all sharks have been thoroughly assessed enough to determine their level of endangerment. In fact, this accounts for 45% of the species, a statistic that begs the need for more research. But of the 256 species we do know about, here are the numbers:
- Critically Endangered: 11 species (includes Ganges shark and angel shark)
- Endangered: 15 species (includes broadfin shark and great hammerhead)
- Vulnerable: 48 species (includes sand tiger shark and great white)
- Near Threatened: 67 species (includes bull shark and tiger shark)
While we can always do more to help preserve all shark species, many efforts are being made worldwide to combat this dangerous decline. This includes efforts to ban or regulate shark fishing, ban finning, and putting an end to the sale of shark products. Dishes such as shark fin soup, are viewed by some as a delicacy, and are highly sought after. But shark fin soup has serious ramifications when it comes to preserving our shark populations.
The value of the fin can be between 20 to 250 times more valuable than the meat by weight. Because of this, it makes more economical sense to use the limited space on a vessel to store only the high-price fins than it is to fill it with the low-priced meat of the sharks’ body. This difference in value causes the deplorable practice of shark finning.
Shark finning is the practice of removing the fins after the shark has been caught in a fishery. The fins are kept and the rest of the shark, still alive, is often returned to the water. Because sharks use their fins to swim, their removal is detrimental and the shark dies from blood loss or is killed by another predator. The fins also help pass water across its gills, so the inability to do this can cause the shark to suffocate.
The hammerhead, bull, tiger, silky, sandbar, oceanic, and shortfin mako are the predominant species used in finning. All of these magnificent creatures have experienced population declines of 90-99% in several regions where they had been plentiful.
Many of the species being targeted for their fins do not reproduce frequently and they may only have a few pups at a time. Overfishing and the practice of finning make it extremely difficult for these populations to recover.
In the U.S., the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 made it illegal to remove the fins or tail of a shark in the wild, to possess unattached shark fins, or to transfer to or receive the fins from any other vessel at sea. All sharks must come on land with fins fully or partially attached in the natural way in all federal waters (except for the smooth dogfish).
Many states can still legally buy and sell shark fins, however. But, in June 2016, a group of bipartisan legislators introduced the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016, which would prohibit the trade of shark fins nationwide. A federal ban would mean that the origin of a fin would not matter because no fins would be entering the U.S. market, legally caught or otherwise. Several states do have their own bans, including Washington, Oregon, and Illinois, but if the entire nation ended the trade of shark fins, it would be joining a global movement that is making a powerful statement.
Oceana released a report that showed Congress the importance of passing a federal ban on the buying and selling of shark fin products. Shark fins are in hot demand, coming from as many as 73 million sharks every year and being sold in markets worldwide.
Some findings from the Oceana report:
- Over 70 percent of the 14 most common shark species being traded in Hong Kong, the historic center of the global shark fin trade, are considered at high or very high risk of extinction.
- Five out of the 11 countries exporting fins to the U.S. do not have finning bans in place. This increases the likelihood that the fins brought to the U.S. are from sharks that have been finned.
- Shark ecotourism is a growing industry, with shark watchers spending an estimated $314 million every year. Researchers believe this number will double in 20 years.
- The exact number of shark fins entering and exiting the United States is not known. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that other countries exported 1,012 metric tons of shark fins to the United States in 2007. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) only reported 28.8 metric tons of shark fin imports for that same year.
Several other countries have laws banning shark fishing, the sale of shark fin and other shark products, or established domestic regulations on finning. Most sharks are not native to one nation’s waters, so regional commissions such as the Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (SEAFO) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and are taking responsibility for shark management and conservation in their regions.
Protected marine sanctuaries are also helping preserve our sea life, including sharks and their habitats. These include: The Cocos Marine Reserve, The Galapagos Marine Reserve, The British Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean’s No Take Zone, Sala y Gomez Island No Take Zone in Chile, and The Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area (which consists of 1/3rd of the total reef).
More needs to be done to protect the shark populations worldwide. There are many activism opportunities and ways the public can increase their awareness and take action. Sharks are amazing creatures that deserve our time and attention.