by Whit Gibbons

July 12, 2009

The expression "shark attacks" has taken on a new and ominous meaning. The number of people bitten each year by sharks is minuscule. Attacks on sharks by humans, however, have reached unacceptable levels around the world, putting some of these great predators on the threshold of extinction. We are killing more than a half million tons of sharks each year.

The Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has published alarming news about the conservation status of more than 60 species of sharks and rays that inhabit the world's oceans. Almost one-third have been classified as "threatened with extinction." For species that restrict their activities to the high seas, seldom approaching coastal waters, the proportion is even higher; more than half are threatened with extinction. The loss of even a single species of these awesome carnivores would diminish the world's wonders. The loss of more than 20 species would be shocking.

The IUCN experts give various reasons for the decline in some species. One reason is that shark fisheries are not sustainable industries because of the animals' life history. Most sharks produce few young; juveniles grow slowly; and sharks tend "to take many years to mature." This means a population cannot replenish itself quickly. Despite this, sharks are overfished and underprotected, with few regulations that apply in international waters. On the high seas, no international catch limits apply for sharks. Furthermore, new markets are opening for shark meat, one of the most appalling being an Asian delicacy known as shark fin soup.

To acquire shark fins for this unsustainable luxury, fishermen cut off the fins of captured sharks then throw the body back into the ocean. The process, called "finning," has no redeeming qualities whether one considers it from the perspective of animal rights, population ecology, or the ocean ecosystem. According to the IUCN report "finning has been banned in most international waters, but enforcement standards are lenient. The EU [European Union] finning ban is among the weakest in the world."

Sharks, rays, and skates belong to a subclass of vertebrates known as the Elasmobranchs, which have cartilaginous skeletons. Many are magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures. Among the globally endangered species that are familiar to most people are hammerhead sharks. The great hammerhead shark, which can reach a length of 20 feet, has a diet that includes other sharks, squid, and stingrays. Hammerhead attacks on humans are rare; sadly, the reverse is not true. The relentless assault on hammerheads by the shark fishery industry could drive the species to extinction within a few years.

One reason for the steady decline of hammerhead sharks is that they "are highly desired for shark fin soup. Millions of hammerheads end up in the Hong Kong fin market each year." The meat of these sharks, however, is generally viewed as unpalatable; so the hammerhead carcasses are simply cast aside. Spain and Portugal are two of the top three shark-fishing nations, yet the EU places no limits on the catch of hammerhead sharks. As a result of the shark fin soup craze, lax fishing regulations, and loose enforcement of existing laws, hammerhead sharks are disappearing from the world's oceans. This is inexcusable.

Another species that is hanging on by a fin is the giant devil ray or devil fish, the enormous ray of the Mediterranean region. With a wingspan that can reach 17 feet and a body length of 21 feet, one of these spectacular animals leaping from the water might be a model for interstellar spacecraft. The greatest human-caused mortality to devil rays is accidental capture in longlines, driftnets, purse-seines, and traps set for other species. But death by accident is no less lethal than deliberate slaughter. Like some other Elasmobranchs, rays cannot replace their numbers quickly. A female devil ray produces only one offspring at a time, often at intervals of two years. That's not enough recruitment to replace individuals being removed every year by uncontrolled, unregulated oceanic fishing.

Decadent, self-indulgent dietary preferences in some cultures and weak or unenforced regulations on ocean fisheries are threatening the sharks and rays of the world. We need to make our protests heard before we lose some of the world's most extraordinary creatures.

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