There are more than 490 species of shark. Indications show that of the 100 species exploited, around 20 are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Some shark stocks of main concern are: White Shark, Whale Shark, Porbeagle, Brazilian Guitarfish, Spiny Dogfish, Dusky Shark, Grey Nurse Shark (aka Sand Tiger Shark) and Shortfin Mako. Even the gentle Basking shark is hunted for its fin.
Sharks have a long lifespan and low reproductive rate, which makes them susceptible to over-fishing. Many sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are in their "teens" and some do not attain it until they are 20 years old or more. After a long gestation period (almost two years in the case of the spiny dogfish), most species produce only a few offspring.
Consequently, sharks are unable to rebound when populations are depleted by over fishing, and as top predators, their extinction could have a major impact on marine ecosystems.
Millions of people from coastal communities see the shark as a cheap of source protein. In many cultures dependent on subsistence fishing, sharks are used in their entirety; their meat, fins, liver, skin, teeth and cartilage.
However, worldwide catches by industrial fishing fleets have escalated phenomenally over the past 20 years, and many of the world's shark and ray species are now severely depleted.
According to the UN-Food and Agricultural Organisation, over 100 million sharks and shark-like fish are caught every year. An estimated 50% of all sharks taken are caught unintentionally as 'bycatch' in other fisheries. Shark bycatches are often caught in longline fisheries such as tuna and swordfish, and as these popular fish become increasingly depleted, restricted, or seasonally unavailable, fishermen are turning to sharks as an alternative. Sharks caught as bycatch are often 'finned', and the rest of their bodies, often still alive, are subsequently thrown overboard.
Trade in Body Parts
Shark fin, meat, liver and other parts are sold for food or as ingredients in health and beauty aids. Shark fins however, are the most popular, fetching up to US$564 per kilo. More than 125 countries participate in the shark trade. The United States and Mexico alone landed more than 100,000 metric tons of shark in 1994 and are considered two of the top shark fishing nations in the world. The Basking shark, which is protected in UK waters, but hunted elsewhere for their dorsal fins, can fetch US$32,000 per tonne as a delicacy in parts of Asia.
The practice of shark finning has increased dramatically in the Pacific where the number of sharks killed in the Hawaiian long-line fisheries climbed from 2,289 in 1991 to 60,857 in 1998 - a extraordinary increase of over 2,500 percent!
More than 98 percent of these sharks were killed for their fins to meet the huge increase in demand for shark's fin soup. And since shark fins make up only one to five percent of the animal's bodyweight, 95 to 99 percent of the shark is often wasted.
Shark fins are one of the most expensive marine products in the world. The vast majority of all fins are shipped to Asia where the fins, made into shark fin soup, are considered a delicacy and a status symbol. As a result of the economic boom in the 1980s more people can afford shark fins. World trade for shark fin has in fact risen by up to 400% in the last 15 years. Shark fin soup was once an expensive luxury for the privileged few in southern China, but now it is mass-produced and has become routine at weddings, banquets and business dinners for millions of people around the world.
The major shark fishing nations are Indonesia, followed by India, the U.S., Pakistan, Mexico and Taiwan Province of China. Other important countries are Japan, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Malaysia, France, the UK, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, Spain, New Zealand and the Maldives. However, shark fishing is expanding worldwide as the international trade in shark fins and other exotic shark products grows rapidly.
Growing concerns of the destructive effects of shark finning has led numerous countries to impose shark finning bans in their territorial waters. Amongst the countries that have imposed a complete ban on shark-finning include Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, and Oman.
Other countries have adopted partial bans on the practice of finning. In the United States, shark-finning is currently banned in the its Atlantic, Hawaiian, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico waters. Environmentalists are pushing to end the practice of finning in the Pacific where shark mortality has grown significantly. In Australia, finning is banned in all Commonwealth (federal) tuna fisheries (covering an area from 3-200 nautical miles from the shore) and in all fisheries in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. However, the ban does not apply within the state/territorial waters (out to 3 n.m.) of South Australia, Queensland or the N. Territory, nor does it apply to non-tuna Commonwealth fisheries.
Some countries have to resort to more severe measures to stop the complete collapse of shark populations in their waters. The year 2001 saw Republic of Congo imposed a complete ban on shark fishing in a bid to revive their shark populations. In the same year, India imposed a similar ban, but only for trade to be partially re-opened due to intense lobbying by traders and fishermen.
It's only very recently that the conservation of sharks has been taken seriously in most parts of the world and therefore there is insufficient data on various species' population status, natural history, levels of trade in their products and levels of exploitation. Fishing of sharks all over the world remains virtually unregulated and unmonitored. Without stronger laws at the national, regional, and international level we may see an unrecoverable decline in many shark species.
The UK government is planning to approach the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in November 2002 to seek worldwide protection for the Basking Shark by placing it on Appendix II which restricts international trade in its products. The Australian government is proposing that the Great White is placed on Appendix I, thus banning all international trade in its products. Whale sharks, now protected in the United States, Honduras, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Maldives, Myanmar and a host of other countries, will also be strongly supported for an Appendix I listing.
What You Can Do
Do not buy food containing shark fin. Tell your friends and relatives that they may be contributing to the irreversible decline of an endangered shark species.
Always opt for environmentally sustainable alternatives and substitutes.
Do not buy shark jaws, you will be unsure which species of shark it is and it may come from a species that is having difficulties.
Do not buy sawfish saws - another highly endangered species.
Write to your government asking them what steps they are taking to end the unregulated trade in and depletion of many shark species.
Avoid buying 'Rock Salmon' in fish and chip shops. This is in fact a nick name for Spiny dogfish, a species of shark who's populations are under severe pressure and are declining rapidly.
If you are tempted to buy shark cartilage pills in health food shops, be aware that there are opposing views as to the efficacy of this treatment against cancer.
For more detailed information on WildAid's Shark Conservation Programme, please visit:http://www.wildaid.org
WildAid's Shark Conservation Programme aims to:
- Raise awareness globally about the threats to sharks
- Promote sustainable management of shark populations
- End the practice of finning globally
- Reduce the excess demand for shark's fin soup.