If there is one symbol that could represent marine wilderness, it is the one that sharks represent.
Their size, how we portray them in our imagination, the mysteries that surround them and the emotions they provoke – from fear to respect and humility – make them iconic beings of the deep blue.
Unfortunately, as well as being largely unknown, misunderstood and unloved creatures, they also belong to a disappearing wilderness. Sharks, the great predators and guardians of the health of the ocean, are in real danger of extinction.
At the core of the current ecological crisis we are in, one of the largest mass extinctions of the world’s biodiversity (both terrestrial and marine) is happening: an unprecedented decline of life on Earth. While sharks have been around for over 400 million years and have managed to survive through multiple mass extinctions, it seems that they will likely not escape this sixth one.
While reading this article, we invite you to put aside your preconceptions and assumptions about sharks. All too often, these ideas are blood-soaked, rooted in dramatic storylines, fueled by Spielberg-style films and media hype/disinformation, and prevent us from appreciating sharks for what they really are.
As you read on, take a fresh look at sharks. Try to understand them and appreciate their uniqueness in this world. Trade fear for respect and the desire to protect them; because today, we are the ones who cause them harm, not the other way around.
Discover in this new article how our activities, our way of consuming and living, have led to the disappearance of entire shark populations and could lead to the extinction of species. And most importantly, find out how we can use the small window of opportunity we have to reverse the situation and allow sharks to regain their rightful place both in our collective minds and in the ocean.
A unique position in the web of life
To understand the importance of a single species for an entire marine ecosystem, we must first realize that all species in that ecosystem are significant. An ecosystem is a combination of species that interact together in an interconnected and interdependent way: they all depend on each other, directly or indirectly.
When one species sees its population reduced – particularly in an intense way, as is currently the case with sharks – then the entire web of life of the ecosystem is affected. The whole ecosystem is altered and disrupted, sometimes leading to major ecological imbalances and negatively impacting other species as a result.
Sharks are highly dependent on all the other species in the ecosystem, from the smallest plankton on which their prey feed, to the remora removing their parasites, to the many fish that make up their diet.
Sharks are also ‘regulators’, with the ability to eliminate sick individuals or control some fish populations. They are also considered ‘top predators’ and play a significant role in the trophic network (all the food relationships in an ecosystem).
The presence of sharks in an ecosystem is a good indicator of the health of the environment. If sharks are present, it is because they have been able to develop and maintain themselves thanks to the presence of food and all the other species that enter into the picture of their existence, indicating in fine an ecosystem rich with life.
Today, more than 500 species of sharks have been identified and are found in all regions of the ocean, from warm tropical waters to the cold, deep waters of the poles. Unfortunately, the abundance of shark populations has declined by 70% since the 1980s, and today one in four species is considered in danger of extinction*.
*On the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list.
Emptying the ocean of sharks
Each year, approximately 100 million sharks are killed. This is a staggering figure, which actually ranges from 63 to 273 million sharks killed per year*, or between 7,000 and 31,000 sharks killed per hour.
Fishing is the reason behind this disaster. Sharks are fished for many reasons: their fins, meat, skin, liver oil, cartilage, jaws and teeth. But they are also the biggest victims of ‘bycatch’: they are not the main targeted species but still suffer the deadly effects of nets and hooks.
*An estimate calculated by scientists based on reported fisheries data while also considering illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
1. Some fins in your broth?
One of the most widely reported shark fisheries is the “shark finning” one.
Shark finning involves cutting off the fins of sharks before releasing the rest of the body back into the water. Once the sharks returned to the water, deprived of their fins and therefore of their ability to move, are left to die.
This practice responds to a very high demand associated with very high prices* by Asian countries (mainly China). In this food culture, especially during celebrations, shark fins are used as a key ingredient in the soup, giving it an appreciated ‘texture’.
*The price of shark fins can reach up to €10,000/kilo.
Although shark finning is often cited as one of the greatest threats to sharks, it affects only a handful of species and is not entirely responsible for the global decline of all shark species.
It is often too easy to point the finger at one region of the world or to blame it solely on one culinary tradition. To focus exclusively on shark finning would be to overlook what is happening in the rest of the world: the fishing of ‘whole’ sharks – whether intentional or accidental.
2. A global slaughter
The overfishing of sharks is driven by an international trade that extends far beyond their fins and beyond Asia: Today, more than 130 countries report shark landing data to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) – the United Nations agency that specialises in everything to do with food.
Since the industrial revolution, fishing has grown tremendously: new technologies, increased use of fossil fuels and a growing demand for seafood have made us go further, deeper, longer and fish more, both in terms of species and individuals – up to a certain limit (article on overfishing to come).
For instance, since 1970, we have increased fishing pressure 18-fold, especially with the increased use of longlines and seine fishing, the methods that catch the most sharks ‘by accident’. Very often caught in fisheries that originally targeted other species, sharks have become the ocean’s greatest victims.
Sharks are extremely sensitive to overexploitation. Because they grow more slowly, mature later and produce fewer young than most fished species, the rate at which their populations can recover is much slower than the rate at which they are being killed.
Taking action at all levels
Although these species are endangered, they are not yet fully extinct, and this is exactly why we must do something before it is too late. With the knowledge we have today, the awareness of the situation and of the importance of all living beings, we have the responsibility to act and ensure that sharks do not become myths or stories that we tell to our children who would not have the opportunity to know them alive.
What can we do? The situation of shark overfishing is complex because it is unique to each of us, depending on our geographical location and our status in society, which determines our responsibilities and decision-making possibilities.
For example, the leverage of a fisherman in Indonesia fishing for sharks to earn a living and pay for his son’s education is different from a consumer of shark fin soup in China, an Australian eating his “fish” and chips in front of the beach, or a Slovakian who doesn’t even live near the ocean.
A social and cultural transformation
Some of the biggest shark fishing countries are the so-called “emerging” countries with lower living standards and economic development than in “rich” countries. In many of these countries, fishing represents a significant financial income and a primary source of food. To make a living and support their families, fishermen turn to the species that are most in-demand or have the highest prices, i.e. sharks.
But these fisheries are mutable; many fishermen become “eco-guides” and instead of going out to fish for sharks, they take tourists to meet them, through snorkelling or diving. Their knowledge about the marine environment from years of experience in the field makes them experts in marine biodiversity, allowing them to pass on this information to others while ensuring the conservation of the species.
On this subject, we invite you to discover the work of Madison Stewart and her Project Hiu, which aims to convert a fleet of shark fishing vessels in Indonesia by offering alternative income to fishermen through tourism.
Shark fishing at home
But not all countries involved in shark fishing are described as “emerging” and it often happens much closer to home than we think.
Spain, for example, is one of the largest shark meat markets and is the leader in shark fishing in Europe (and in the top five worldwide). France, meanwhile, holds the second-largest position in Europe.
Despite the European Union‘s “Fins Naturally Attached” regulation since 2013, which prohibits the storage and landing of shark fins in EU waters and on vessels, Europe is one of the largest exporters of fins and an important transit area for global shark meat trade.
Indeed, both the lack of control on board vessels (<5% of vessels are controlled) and the fact that sharks can be landed ‘whole’ (with fins attached to the body) allow the trade of these species. Species such as the blue shark and mako shark are caught without restriction: no quotas, size limits or periodic closures are in place, making them two of the most endangered shark species.
Some political progress
A European citizens’ initiative was launched in 2020 – Stop Finning EU – to call for the extension of the EU’s ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ regulation to all export, import and transit of sharks. Having collected over 1,200,000 signatures from more than seven different EU countries, this initiative will be analysed by the European Commission in the course of 2023, which could potentially accept the proposal and decide to change the law.
This initiative carried by hundreds of thousands of citizens shows us that individual commitment within a collective and at the political level can potentially turn the tide and could have a tremendous positive impact on marine biodiversity.
Another initiative that is moving shark protection forward at the political level, this time at the international stage, is the listing of new shark species in Appendix II of CITES. CITES is the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora” and therefore regulates the exploitation and conservation of certain species.
At the end of November 2022, the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) took place in Panama with a major breakthrough: 60 new shark species were listed in Appendix II, meaning that they can only be legally traded if their survival is not at risk. The majority of the species listed are among the most heavily commercialised species for their meat and fins: their trade will be much more controlled and potentially banned if they are considered endangered.
The adoption of this measure at the international level is the result of years of lobbying and activism by many scientists, NGOs and citizens and reflects once again the power of each individual to take action for marine life.
A path to follow for more respect and protection
Many other actions still need to be put in place, at the political and legal levels, as well as in our consumption choices and in our collective mind.
We can still act to:
- Establish marine protected areas to create shark sanctuaries, allowing them to reproduce and grow without being threatened by fishing;
- Choose our seafood more responsibly by not encouraging fishing methods that “accidentally” capture sharks and by checking the identity of the fish we buy (e.g. dogfish… is a shark!).
- Keep informing ourselves and raising awareness among as many people as possible about the shark situation, in order to change our common perception of sharks from “man-eating animals” to “beautiful creatures” that are seriously endangered and that deserve our full respect and protection.
Going to encounter sharks in the wild is also a wonderful experience that opens the door to a different perception and representation of these animals. Let’s remember that the ocean is their element, their home, and not just a playground that we can take over as we please. The ocean remains a majestic space where we can learn to interact with its inhabitants, with curiosity and always with great respect.
Today, the multiplicity of engagement levers one can take means that we no longer have any excuses for not acting. We wish everyone to be able to admire these iconic animals of the sea and at the same time take action to prevent their extinction.