From Villain to Vulnerable: How a Decade Changed the Perception of Sharks

With many species imperiled, Pew looks back—and forward—on the conservation movement

From Villain to Vulnerable: How a Decade Changed the Perception of Sharks
Sharks
Jim Abernethy

The shark’s transformation from feared and despised to respected and even valued was no accident. Even as the public vilified these vital marine animals—as recently as 10 years ago, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week lineup included “Sharkbite Summer,” “Great White Appetite,” and “Blood in the Water”—a movement to protect numerous shark species was growing. Driven by alarming data on the decline of sharks, a community of scientists, conservationists, and government officials decided it was time to safeguard these species, which are critical to the health of marine ecosystems and sustainable ecotourism around the world.

As part of that movement, The Pew Charitable Trusts launched its global shark conservation campaign in 2009. In the early years, the campaign focused on urging regional fisheries management organizations to set shark catch limits and encouraging governments to create shark sanctuaries—areas where shark fishing is prohibited throughout their national waters.

Sharks
In 2011, The Bahamas designated its national waters as a shark sanctuary, banning all commercial fishing of these animals.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Since then, Pew and its global partners have helped advance shark protections and management—including through a game-changing achievement at the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties where, for the first time, the organization adopted trade protections for five commercially valuable and commonly traded shark species. Until this point, the fin trade—a major driver in the killing of sharks—was mostly unregulated. But during the 2013 CITES cycle, Pew partnered with scientists to develop a guide to visually identify the five shark species proposed for protections, which provided customs officials the tools needed to properly implement these trade restrictions.

Sharks
Commercially important sharks—including great, scalloped, and smooth hammerheads—were added to CITES Appendix II in 2013, meaning any trade was required to be legal, traceable, and sustainable.
Jim Abernethy

Additionally, science-based advocacy led to progress on shark conservation in Asia—a significant victory in a region that includes Hong Kong, the hub of the global shark fin trade.

A combination of CITES implementation workshops and public surveys helped not only to show that public perception of sharks had changed but also led to seizures of more than 5 metric tons of illegally traded shark fins in Hong Kong between 2014 and July 2018. And conversations between advocates and Chinese entrepreneurs eventually led more than 100 prominent businesses in that country to ban shark fin soup at official company functions.

Sharks
Stan Shea, of Bloom Association Hong Kong, presents trade data at a workshop in Hong Kong to help customs officials learn to identify CITES-listed shark species.
Stan Shea

Over the next five months, Pew will publish conversations with some of its key partners in the fight to protect sharks—from scientists and survivors of shark encounters to conservationists and government officials from around the world—to show how the momentum grew around conservation initiatives and how the global community has come together to work toward ending the unsustainable killing of these species.

So far, the movement has yielded remarkable progress, including 17 shark sanctuaries and the listing of 20 commercially valuable shark and ray species on CITES Appendix II—which means those species can be traded internationally, but only if the trade does not cause them detriment in the wild—and has provided training and tools to representatives from more than 70 governments to prevent illegal trade in these listed species. Further, this work has resulted in more than a dozen measures within regional fisheries management organizations to safeguard these animals and has helped change the policy conversation about sharks, along with the public’s perception of them.

Global Efforts to Protect Sharks
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Shark Sanctuary
Shark Sanctuary
Fact Sheet

Shark Sanctuaries Around the World

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Fact Sheet

Shark sanctuaries are useful tools for coastal and island governments seeking to reduce shark mortality in their waters. At least 100 million sharks are killed in commercial fisheries every year. Sanctuary designations typically prohibit the commercial fishing of all sharks, the retention of sharks caught as bycatch, and the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within a country’s full exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Some also ban fishing gear typically used to target sharks, such as wire leaders and shark lines. Because of the role that sharks play in maintaining ocean health, protecting them with sanctuaries provides ecosystem, environmental, cultural, and economic benefits.

Pew hopes this movement will leave a lasting history of benchmark science and policy to protect sharks. There is, of course, more work to be done, and we look forward to continuing to fight for the future of the ocean’s most vital, and most vulnerable, species.

Jen Sawada directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global shark conservation program.