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.  But the truth is, sharks are not a danger to humanity.  In fact, they’re not even on the list of “Top 100 Greatest Threats to Humans.”  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’ reputation.  In fact, the fear that the movie invoked almost single-handedly caused a decrease in 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 individuals who kill sharks for sport.

But 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, sharks have been hunted by Asian countries such as China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia 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 a minimum of $650 per kilogram on the black market (for some rare species, like Whale Sharks, a single fin can sell for $20,000).  But the practice of shark finning is unbelievably cruel.

Although shark fins only make up around five percent of the total body weight of the shark, it 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 cut off the fins – while the shark is still alive – and then 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.

This practice is completely barbaric and cruel, and although many countries have made an effort to ban shark finning, a thriving black market still exists, and there is barely any governmental enforcement.

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 so vigilant.  For example, shark finning is illegal in Madagascar; but there is only one inspection boat to monitor 460,000 square miles of water.  Due to lack of funding, these boats are unable to operate more than twice a year.  This has been the case in many East Asian and African countries, and 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 they 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, it would create a domino effect in which the “bad” fish would dominate, and the “good” fish (like parrotfish) would be wiped out.  “Good” fish help an ecosystem grow, and parrotfish, as an example, do this by eating the algae off of coral reefs.  Right now, sharks keep this all in balance by eating groupers and allowing parrotfish to do their jobs.  But certain areas of the world – such as Belize – have already been showing the consequences of an absence of sharks, in the form of coral reefs dying and fisheries failing.

Without sharks to keep the seas in check, it is likely that the entire ocean would begin to fail, as shown in the microcosms in Belize.  And without a healthy ocean, there is almost no feasible way that our plant can survive.  The ocean provides one-third of the world’s population with food.  It creates more oxygen than every forest on earth combined, and it controls earth’s temperature and weather.  According to recent studies, if sharks were to go completely extinct – and the ocean was to fall out of balance – earth would reach a point of catastrophe which hasn’t happened 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, then there will be dire consequences.  Our actions have already completely killed off more than 90% of sharks – a species of predatory fish that has existed for 450 million years.  As we speak, more than 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 see if it has shark safety laws or overfishing protections in place, and if it doesn’t, contact your state representatives, either by letter, phone, email, or Twitter.

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 the sharks is the best way to prevent our environment from deteriorating even further.