This year has seen major shark conservation actions taken around the world. The U.S. Shark Conservation Act was signed into law in January, and shark finning prohibitions in the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands were enacted in February and March. The Marshall Islands established a moratorium on shark fishing, and Chile is poised to enact a ban on shark finning in June.
More action is needed by many more countries, however. A new report by the Pew Environment Group, "Sharks in Trouble: Hunters Become the Hunted," (PDF) illustrates how these animals are threatened by commercial fisheries throughout the world's oceans.
The new publication points out that, according to global reports, shark populations have declined by as much as 70 to 80 percent. Scientists estimate that 30 percent of all shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. For an additional 47 percent of shark species, scientists lack enough data to make an accurate assessment. In addition, they grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over their long lifetimes, leaving them exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation and slow to recover from depletion.
Up to 73 million sharks are killed every year, primarily for their fins, which end in shark-fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Shark finning—in which the fins are sliced off and the body is often discarded at sea—makes it possible for vast quantities of fins to be brought to port in one fishing trip. This practice has decimated shark populations in many parts of the world.
Another worldwide threat to sharks comes from industrial fishing gear, which often brings in many species other than the fish being targeted. This part of the fishing haul, called bycatch, is unregulated and often unreported. Although some sharks caught as bycatch may be retained and landed for sale, often they are thrown overboard either dead or seriously injured.
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The catch of sharks in commercial fisheries for their fins, meat, liver oil, cartilage and other parts remains largely unregulated in most of the world. Overfishing, excessive bycatch, a lack of scientific data, poor management, shark finning and the lack of political will to adopt measures that embody best practices have led to declines in populations of many shark species worldwide. Concerted action must be taken by all fishing countries, the United Nations and international bodies that regulate shark fishing and trade.
At Pew, we work with advocates in many places to put stronger protections for sharks in place.
In 2011, various nations took action to make protection of these essential creatures a priority. Commercial fishing of these animals is now prohibited in more than 4.7 million square kilometers of ocean (1.8 million square miles) that have been declared shark sanctuaries, an area more than two times the size of Greenland. States around the world—from California in the United States to the remote Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific—have enacted trade bans on sharks and shark products.
Sharks have roamed our oceans since before the time of dinosaurs. More effort is needed to ensure that their long reign at the top of the ocean food chain does not end in our lifetime.
You can make a difference in global shark conservation efforts.