03/11/2011 - Last year marked a turnaround for the global economy, and it may also prove to have been a watershed for protecting some of the oldest species of fish facing commercial extinction - sharks.
Last year, the United States, Maldives and several other countries took important steps to help protect dwindling shark populations. But to ensure their long-term future, additional work is needed. There are more than 400 species of sharks in our oceans. They serve as vital apex predators, helping to maintain balance in the ecosystem. They also play another useful role: as economic engines for communities that cater to divers and others seeking wildlife-related recreational activities.
Worldwide, tourism generated by whale sharks - the largest species of fish on the planet - is estimated to total more than US$47.5 million a year. Sharks, however, are also prized for their fins. Once considered an exotic delicacy, shark's fin soup consumption has soared over the past decade - due in part to the combination of a large, growing population and the explosion of wealth across Asia. This, together with weak to non-existent rules governing shark catches and international trade, has set the stage for massive overfishing.
Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily to support the global fin trade. Marine researchers now warn that 30 per cent of the world's shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. Against this background, 2010 proved an important year for ocean conservation. In March, the international community chose commerce over conservation by rejecting protection for an array of marine species at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This was a hard blow to conservation efforts.
Yet, there were also a number of solid steps forward. Last spring, the Maldives created a sanctuary for sharks in its waters, covering 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. This was followed by adoption of protective measures for eight shark species at the November meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Late last year, the presidents of Honduras and Palau challenged others at the United Nations to join them in working to ensure healthy global shark populations by establishing additional sanctuaries and ending the practice of "finning", or the slicing off of a shark's fins only to discard the animal, leaving it to die at sea. The international community must answer this call. This includes establishing domestic sanctuaries where they do not yet exist, regulating international trade and banning all fishing of threatened and endangered shark species lacking management plans.
As the year ended, the U.S. Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which will boost efforts to stop wasteful finning. But the actions of any one country alone will not be enough. The clock is ticking for sharks everywhere, yet it's not too late to save these amazing marine predators from extinction.
Matt Rand directs the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation Campaign.