We love sharks. We admire and respect their big teeth and sleek muscled bodies, their sense of menace and stealth, and the sheer brutality of their sudden attack and the feeding frenzy. They’re fearsome, formidable, and exciting, and they have a unique place in our culture as creatures that are both beautiful and terrifying. We make films about them, endless documentaries. Tourists go on shark dives, to tell their friends about how they swam with the mother of all predators.
The irony is, the roles are actually complete inverse. We are the predators in this particular relationship:
Humans killed by sharks per year: 5
Sharks killed by humans per year: 38 million
According to a report in the Conservation Biology journal, shark numbers in the Mediterranean have nosedived over the last century. Hammerhead and Thresher Shark numbers have dropped 99%, Blue Sharks and Mackerel Shark numbers are down 96%. Worldwide, Blacktip shark numbers are down 93% in 30 years, Dusky and Bull sharks down 99%, Tiger sharks 97%. Overall, most of the large ocean predators are in serious danger of extinction.
One of the main reasons for this is overfishing, and the shark trade is unusually cruel. It is shark fins that are most valuable, so rather than land the whole fish, it is easier for fishermen to slice off the fins and dump the rest overboard. There are also EU quotas about how many sharks can be caught, and so the easy way around them is not to bring in the whole fish. Millions of sharks are dumped in this way, to die finless and helpless, sometimes weeks later. If sharks made horror films, they would make them about people.
Despite the barbarous nature of shark fishing, all efforts to control it or ban it have been thwarted, often by the Spanish exporting industry. It’s a highly lucrative business. Shark fin soup is a delicacy and a status symbol in China. It is served at $100 a bowl, and demand for it is rising every year. And in case we throw up our hands at the environmentally cavalier attitudes of the Chinese, Monbiot points out that celebrity chefs still feature swordfish recipes, an equally endangered marine predator.
Does it matter that we are slowly wiping out sharks? Aren’t the seas safer now anyway? Unsurprisingly, it does matter. As we’ve covered in our broader post on conservation, no species is independent. Knock out a major predator, and the consequences down through the food chain can be unexpected. This article in the New Scientist explores the chain reaction of shark fishing in the Atlantic – as sharks numbers declined, their primary prey, rays and skates, boomed. As ray numbers grew, the pressure moved onto their own prey, and mollusc populations collapsed. This then came full circle as fishermen harvesting shellfish and scallops went out of business.
The problems around shark conservation are very solvable. They are issues of consumer behaviour and legislation. Shark finning could be banned and existing bans better enforced. Pressure can be brought on suppliers and retailers of endangered marine species. This includes UK supermarkets, by the way, if you wanted to get involved on your own front door. See the Bite Back campaign‘s list of people to write to. For more, adopt a shark through the Shark Trust, volunteer with project AWARE, and keep an eye out for shark and other species like swordfish or monkfish on restaurant menus. Where you find it, make your disapproval felt.