Sharks and the Countdown to Extinction

Sharks are fundamentally misunderstood creatures. For centuries, sharks have been feared because of their sharp teeth, ominous fins, and vicious visage. However, sharks are not a danger to humanity. In fact, they’re not even on the “Top 100 Greatest Threats to Humans” list. The top spots on that list go to heart disease, cancer, car accidents, and suicide. However, sharks only kill an average of five people per year and injure an average of thirteen people per year.

To put that number in perspective, lightning kills 24,000 people per year. Falling out of bed kills 450 people per year. Coconuts kill 150 people per year. Hot water (as in, hot tap water) kills 100 people per year. And last but not least, popping champagne corks kills 24 people per year.

Additionally, sharks are not even the most dangerous animals in the world. Hippos kill 2,900 people per year. Deer kill 130 people per year. Dogs kill between 30 and 35 people per year. And cows kill 22 people per year.

However unlikely it may seem, a shark is significantly more likely to take a bite out of a seal than to take a bite out of you.

So then why do we treat sharks with such hostility and fear? This can be traced back to a crucial moment in cinematic history: 40 years ago, when Steven Spielberg released his 1975 blockbuster, Jaws. This film did little to improve sharks’ reputations. In fact, the fear that the movie invoked helped cause a decrease in some shark populations by 30 to 50 percent. This precipitous decline happened because of countries–like Australia –instituting “shark cull laws,” which allow the killing of sharks for the “protection of their citizens” and for sport.

However, sharks’ false reputation for being blood-thirsty monsters is not the main source of their impending extinction—and it’s not the reason that we should be concerned.

For decades, residents of Asian countries such as China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia have hunted sharks for their fins. Shark fins have been infamously used to make shark fin soup, an expensive and rare delicacy in many countries. For this reason, shark fins sell for upwards of $650 per kilogram on the black market.

The practice of shark finning is unbelievably cruel. Although a shark’s fin only makes up around five percent of its total body weight, the fin has the most value. The rest of the body of the shark usually only nets $0.85 per kilogram. Because of this, shark finners usually remove the fins from living sharks and throw the shark back into the water. Unable to swim, the animal will sink to the bottom of the ocean and either starve, bleed to death, or be eaten by another predator.

Although many countries have made an effort to ban shark finning, a thriving black market still exists and there exists little governmental intervention, despite the clearly present barbarism and cruelty associated with the practice.

In 2000, the United States passed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which forbade finning in American waters as well as the possession of fins without the rest of the shark. This law has been fairly effective in North America, but other countries have not been as vigilant. For example, shark finning is illegal in Madagascar; however, only one inspection boat monitors “460,000 square miles of open water.” Additionally, due to lack of funding, these boats are unable to operate more often than twice a year. This too has been the case in many East Asian and African countries. As a result, most black market shark finners evade prosecution.

The lack of international oversight and protection of sharks has become harmful to our oceans’ ecosystems, and, without further action, the situation could become even worse.

Sharks play a critical role in the oceanic ecosystem, because they are the apex predators. They keep the marine life in the ocean healthy and in balance. If sharks are driven to extinction, oceanic ecosystems all over the world would begin to collapse.

Sharks frequently eat—and thus, control the population of—“bad” fish: that is, fish which do not contribute much to an ecosystem, such as groupers. If sharks were to disappear from an ecosystem, a domino effect would be created in which the “bad” fish dominate and the “good” fish (like parrotfish) are wiped out. Parrotfish, by eating the algae off of coral reefs, exemplify how “good” fish can help an ecosystem grow and thrive. Right now, sharks keep this all in balance by eating groupers and allowing parrotfish to do their jobs. Yet, certain areas of the world such as Belize have already seen coral reefs dying and fisheries failing, showing the consequences of an absence of sharks.

Without sharks to keep the seas in check, it is likely that the entire ocean will begin to fail, as shown in the microcosms in Belize; without a healthy ocean, there is almost no feasible way that our plant can survive. The ocean “provides one-third of our world with food.” It creates more oxygen than every forest on Earth combined, and helps control Earth’s temperature and weather. According to recent studies, if sharks became extinct and the ocean fell out of balance, Earth would reach a point of catastrophe unseen in 250 million years—since the Permian-Triassic Extinction, in which 90 percent of all flora and fauna on Earth died.

If these statistics and predictions sound fatalistic, that’s because they are. If we—as a country and as a species—do not take drastic measures to save these creatures, there will be dire consequences. The shark, a species of predatory fish that has existed for 450 million years, has seen its population slashed by 90 percent as a direct result of our actions. Presently, around 100 million sharks continue to be slaughtered each year.

So, what can we do to stop this? Urge companies like MUJI Japan to stop selling shark fin soup. Join organizations like Shark Truth and WildAid, which seek to raise awareness about sharks and stop shark culling. Research your home state to find whether it has shark safety laws or overfishing protections in place; if it doesn’t have these laws, contact your state representatives by letter, phone, email, or Twitter.

Finally, and most importantly, educate others by spreading this message. Let people know about how much danger sharks are in. Tweet at celebrities, and people who have power in the global community. Many stars such as Yao Ming, James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gordon Ramsay, and Rosario Dawson have already joined the fight to end finning, and many more people would likely join as well if they were more informed.

The safety of these animals is crucial to the survival of our planet, and it is imperative that we take action to save them now. Stopping the impending extinction of sharks is the best way to prevent our environment from deteriorating any further.