By Emma Livingston
The movie Jaws would have you believe that sharks’ appetite for human meat is dangerous; in reality humans’ appetite for sharks is far worse. The hunting of sharks for shark fin soup leads to the deaths of tens of millions of sharks each year, many of which are endangered.
This is a complex problem that cannot be solved by any simple solution, but there are clear steps to be taken.
One is to reduce consumption of shark fin soup. This can be approached through consumers and through government regulation, and both methods should be used to reduce consumption as quickly as possible.
Proof that this can work comes from China, where a WildAid report from 2014 says that 85% of consumers have stopped eating shark fin soup in the past 3 years, largely due to education campaigns. Another important factor is a government ban on shark-fin soup at official events. This law could be an example for other countries: the government models appropriate conservation practices, thus educating people without forcing them to change habits.
While some might argue that consumption of shark fin soup is an important cultural ritual that should be protected, this does not excuse driving sharks to extinction. Besides, if these species go extinct, there will be no shark fin soup left. Thus, banning the use of endangered species and carefully regulating the sale of others is beneficial to everyone in the long run.
However, regulating the consumption of shark fin alone still doesn’t get the job done. If protecting sharks from going extinct is the goal (and it should be!), we need to know which species are most at risk, why, and what we can do to help.
A 2014 study published in the journal eLife from a global team of scientists on the IUCN Shark Specialist Group led by Nicholas Dulvy (Simon Fraser University) sheds some light on these issues. They found that almost half of shark and ray species (which are closely related to sharks) are poorly studied, and estimate that more than half are endangered, threatened, or near threatened.
According to Dulvy, “In greatest peril are the largest species of rays and sharks, especially those living in shallow water that is accessible to fisheries.” This is because large species take longer to mature and tend to have fewer babies per year, so their populations cannot recover as quickly from overfishing.
The article found that both intentional hunting and bycatch (accidental catch while fishing for something else) were major causes of shark death. These findings give us a starting point for policies to protect sharks; namely, banning hunting of endangered sharks and limiting hunting of others, and reducing bycatch where possible (like we did with dolphins).
A more recent article in Fish and Fisheries from Davidson, Krawchuk, and Dulvy at Simon Fraser University found that declines in shark catches were probably due to declining shark populations, rather than improved protections. This is bad, since it means that current regulations aren’t strong enough, and that shark numbers have declined so much that we are starting to have trouble catching them.
Even worse, many countries don’t report what shark species were caught in their waters, only that it was a shark. This means that increased catches of abundant species can hide declines in endangered ones. As Dulvy said of a prior case where species-level reporting was eventually instituted, “We had been blind to these worrisome declines [in the most vulnerable species] because they were masked by poor statistics.”
On the bright side, China’s recent reductions in shark fin soup consumption happened after the most recent data available in the study (up to 2011), so it is possible that current trends are less worrisome. Still, it is best to err on the side of caution, and strengthen regulations to make sure that we do not continue driving sharks to the brink of extinction.
However, these changes will not happen without public involvement. So find out whether the food you eat contributes to shark death. Speak out for new policies that will protect sharks. And help make sure that the movie Jaws will not be the only way your grandchildren will ever see a shark.
Whitcraft, S. et. al. (2014) Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand, China. WildAid. San Francisco, CA. http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/SharkReport_spread_final_08.07.14.pdf
Dulvy, N. et.al. (2014) Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. eLife. Cambridge, UK. http://elifesciences.org/content/elife/3/e00590.full.pdf
Davidson, L., Krawchuk, M., & Dulvy, N. (2015). Why have global shark and ray landings declined: Improved management or overfishing? Fish and Fisheries Fish Fish. Retrieved October 22, 2015, from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nicholas_Dulvy/publication/276150648_Why_have_global_shark_and_ray_landings_declined_improved_management_or_overfishing/links/555391f008ae6fd2d81f205e.pdf