With their voracious representation in countless movies and books, it is no surprise that sharks get a bad rap from humans, but how scared should we really be? In 2005, National Geographic reported that, on average, there are about 16 shark attacks per year in the United States, and roughly one fatal attack every two years. Worldwide, roughly 5-15 people are killed by sharks each year. To put this into perspective, along the coast of the United States alone, lightning strikes and kills an average of 41 people every year. Moreover, while less than 20 humans die each year from shark attacks, 20 to 100 million sharks are killed each year, while sharks typically aren’t very harmful to humans. Why then, are humans so afraid of these magnificent organisms?
The negative reputation sharks get from the media generally results in much of the general public disregarding any sympathy for them. As such, this leads to insufficient education about the true ecology of these fish and little interest in their conservation. Recently, however, this reputation has changed. Sharks have become a popular topic among ichthyologists, bringing shark’s true colors into light and subsequently, the disturbing and unethical methods of fishing them.
The most valuable part of a shark on the market today is the fins. Shark fin soup, a popular wedding dish, is a huge commodity in Asia and is highly demanded (a kilogram of shark fins is worth roughly $100 USD in Asia). As such, most sharks are caught simply for their fins – no surprise really. What most people don’t see is how these fins are obtained. In shark finning, the shark is typically dismembered while it is alive, having its fins cut off immediately as it is caught. More disturbingly, the mutilated body of the shark is then tossed overboard where it will sink to the bottom to bleed to death or drown, and yet sharks get a bad rap with humans (Spiegel, 2001).
As I mentioned, humans kill millions of sharks every year. Moreover, since it can take up to 7 years for some shark species to sexually mature, many are killed before they are able to reproduce. As suck, a major decline in global shark populations has been evident. A study conducted by Baum and colleagues (2003) suggested that some species of sharks had suffered from a more than 75% decline in numbers in 15 years prior to the study. So who should really be running scared, humans or sharks?
There is a glimmer of hope however! Many states have banned the practice of shark finning, and fittingly, during this year’s shark week, Oregon passed a bill (bill HB 2838) prohibiting the possession, trade, and sale of shark fins. California is also pending a similar bill in hopes to stop the travesty that is shark finning. However, the Asian market still has a high demand for shark fin soup, hindering any progress in prohibiting shark finning in those countries. Something drastic must be done. Sharks are at the top of their food chains, controlling populations of many fish species and hence maintaining the proper functioning of many marine ecosystems (Spiegel, 2001). With many species on the brink of extinction as a result of human exploitation, entire ecosystems are at risk. If something isn’t done soon it may be too late, and the consequences will be felt on a global scale.
If you would like to learn more about the shark finning industry, check out “Sharkwater”, a documentary about the Costa Rica shark finning trade (see trailer below).
Baum, J.K., Myers, R.A, Kehler,D.G., Worm, B., Harley, S.J., and Doherty, P.A. 2003. Collapse and Conservation of Shark Populations in the Northwest Atlantic. Science 299: 389-392.
Spiegel, J. 2001. Even Jaws Deserves to Keep His Fins: Outlawing Shark Finning Throughout Global Waters. Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 24: 409-438.