It's time again for Shark Week. Have you wondered what's happened to the ocean's top predator since you last tuned in?
First, the bad news. Scientists verified that about 100 million sharks are killed annually, up from the 73 million that had been documented previously. In contrast, sharks generally attack about 70 people on average each year, resulting in a handful of deaths. So remember those statistics when you're cringing in your seat during those Shark Week attack reenactments. Even some shark attack survivors, including me, know that sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. Our survivors group actually works to save sharks.
Now, some good news for sharks.
Three more governments have declared their waters as shark sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned. French Polynesia, an overseas territory of France, protected about 1.8 million square miles where more than 21 shark species are found. Nearby Cook Islands did the same with its 756,000 square miles. Together, these two regions created the world's largest contiguous shark sanctuary, making it nearly the size of Australia.
New Caledonia also made a safe haven of its 480,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of South Africa. Its particularly healthy marine ecosystem is home to about 50 shark species. With these three additions, nine shark sanctuaries cover more than 4.8 million square miles of the world's oceans. That's larger than the size of the United States and Canada combined.
What's more, five species of sharks and two species of manta rays won international trade protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—the most recognized, effective and successfully enforced international conservation agreement. Under the agreement, manta rays, porbeagles, three species of hammerheads and oceanic whitetips can be traded only when international sales would not cause a harmful decline in their populations. In the past, only three shark species—whale, basking, and great white—were safeguarded. The victory was especially significant because countries had previously been reluctant to add more marine species under the treaty.
And last but not least, after years of debate the European Union closed loopholes in its ban on shark finning—slicing off a shark's lucrative fins and dumping the less-profitable body overboard, leaving the shark to drown or bleed to death. Under new rules, all sharks must be brought to port with their fins intact. (Previously, fishermen with permits were allowed to remove shark fins on board vessels and bring them to the docks separately from the bodies. But that practice was difficult to monitor and left significant room for undetected shark finning.)
Despite these and other positive developments for sharks, these animals remain seriously threatened. A third of all shark species are headed for extinction. Sharks are slow-growing, late to mature and have few pups. They cannot reproduce fast enough to keep up with current fishing rates.
Our survivors' group, in cooperation with The Pew Charitable Trusts, will keep working to save sharks by encouraging more countries to create shark sanctuaries and by pushing for rules that protect the most vulnerable species from commercial fishing.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Shark Week. You might even spot a repeat of the show that premiered last year about our survivor group. Just remember that long after you turn off the television, we'll be working behind the scenes to save the sharks you might just see on next year's Shark Week.