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Around 100 million sharks are killed each year across the globe, often for their fins and cartilage.
Words by Matilde Nuñez del Prado Alanes
Sharks have inhabited Earth since more than 400 million years ago — long before the dinosaurs existed — and have survived five mass extinctions. They are a critical part of many ocean ecosystems and play a key role in maintaining food chains and the ocean’s overall health. As top predators, these fish are crucial in balancing the populations of other marine species and ensuring biodiversity. By consuming the weak and sick, they also help control the spread of disease.
Contrary to the myth that they are mindless eating machines, some sharks have proven to be intelligent, learning and copying behaviors from other sharks. Plus, humans are not on their menu. However, the human appetite for shark appears to be so great that global populations of these creatures have declined by 70 percent over the last 50 years.
Around 100 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, according to a paper published in Marine Policy in 2013. In the study, researchers calculated that between 6.4 and 7.9 percent of all sharks are killed annually. These numbers are alarming considering that these animals have few young throughout their lives and they take a long time to mature. Across all shark species, the average number of sharks that could be killed while still maintaining stable populations is less than 5 percent each year.
Even when not taken directly by humans, sharks can easily become entangled in fishing gear because they compete with humans for the same prey and gather at the same fishing spots. This kind of accidental capture of marine wildlife is called bycatch and it’s a component of most commercial fishing operations. Whether through intentional fishing or bycatch, humans kill more than 11,400 sharks per hour.
Alarmingly, about 190 sharks are killed every minute — that’s more than three sharks per second lost due to human activities. Given this horrifying picture, the recent vote in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in favor of limiting or regulating the commercial trade of 54 species of sharks in the requiem family is a beacon of hope. If measures are effectively implemented, the number of shark deaths is expected to drop considerably in the coming years.
Although sharks are portrayed by the media as fearsome bloody killers, the most recent five-year global average of shark attacks on humans is 72 annually. As a result, around 5 people are killed by sharks a year on average. Surfers and other board sports athletes suffer the most incidents as they spend a lot of time in areas commonly frequented by sharks, who can be unintentionally attracted by their movements.
According to the International Shark Attack File latest report, in 2021 the number of deaths was slightly above normal, reaching 11 shark-related fatalities, 9 of them classified as “unprovoked.” However, in the same year the frequency of attacks remained close to average, with only 73 confirmed shark attacks on humans worldwide. Despite the recent spike in fatalities, long-term trends show the annual number of deaths is declining.
Historically, the U.S. is the country with the most unprovoked shark attacks, followed by Australia. But the U.S. total is only just over 1,500 cases since 1837, and Australia’s total record doesn’t reach 700. In line with this tendency, both countries remained at the top in 2021, with 47 and 12 attacks respectively. Of the nine unprovoked shark-related deaths in the year, three were in Australia and two in New Caledonia, while single fatalities occurred in New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and the United States.
Given the large number of people who take part in aquatic sports and recreational activities each year around the world, the number of shark bites and related deaths is extremely low. By comparison, more than 250,000 human bites are registered each year in the U.S. alone — and though it is very rare for them to cause death, up to 25 percent of these injuries become infected. In the same country, the risk of death from a shark attack is one in more than 4 million, 12 times less than for fireworks, 716 times less than for excessive cold and 36,000 times less than for suicide. Shark-related deaths are also far lower than human fatalities caused by farmed animals and insects.
If anything, sharks likely do more damage by being eaten than by attacking. Because they are at the top of the food chain, these predators’ bodies accumulate marine toxins from the animals they eat. Studies have indicated that the levels of several dangerous chemicals in shark meat, such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic, are above safe limits.
Fin soup is one of the main causes of death for many sharks. It is a traditional Chinese dish featuring shredded shark fins that have been dried and prepared. Once served only to nobility, the soup is considered a delicacy and a symbol of hospitality in Chinese cuisine, though its consumption is not limited to China.
Shark fins are imported into many countries worldwide. Although consumption has fallen by 80 percent in China between 2011 and 2018, Asian and non-Asian consumers are increasing in Western societies. In rare cases fins come from previously dead animals, but most are obtained by “shark finning,” which is the intended catch of sharks and removal of their fins at sea.
While shark fin soup is one of the driving forces behind shark hunting, in recent years the international trade in shark meat and other shark byproducts, such as cartilage and oil, has been expanding rapidly and the market for shark products was valued at roughly a billion dollars per year in 2015. A recent study even revealed the presence of meat from threatened and endangered sharks in several brands of dog and cat food, without it appearing on the labels. Shark cartilage, found in many products around the world, is often marketed for the treatment of cancer, psoriasis, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, without any scientific backing. It could even exacerbate inflammation, according to a 2015 study.
At the same time many nontargeted sharks get caught in fishing nets. Although some survive and are released while alive, some species populations, including dusky, night and scalloped hammerhead sharks are often killed or harmed as bycatch. Though recent and accurate statistics are hard to come by, a 1994 study from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that perhaps nearly 50 percent of reported shark catches by commercial fisheries were unintentional.
It’s estimated that 73 million sharks are killed a year for shark fin soup. Sharks account for about 95 percent of the global fin trade. Among the most commonly finned species of sharks are the scalloped hammerhead and the smooth hammerhead, with between 1.3 million and 2.7 million individuals from these species killed in the shark fin trade every year.
Because they are more profitable than the rest of the carcass, many fishermen prefer to simply cut off the fins and return sharks’ mutilated bodies to the ocean to save money. Sharks are usually still alive and conscious when they are thrown back into the water. As they need their fins for swimming, steering, balancing and in some cases breathing, most of them die slowly from blood loss, suffocation or because they are preyed on by other animals.
Most countries have the authority to regulate their coasts and the catches brought into their ports, as well as the products for sale in their markets. The public can help ensure these regulations protect sharks by demanding countries comply with international agreements, including opposing the trade and sale of fins.
In the U.S. the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act became law in 2022, banning trade in fins obtained by finning sharks at sea, though legal options for trading shark fins remain. If you are in Europe, you can follow the progress of the citizens’ initiative to stop finning in the Europe Union here.
You can also take a look at nonprofits such as WildAid, Animal Welfare Institute, Shark Stewards or Shark Allies, among other organizations committed to protecting sharks, and support and amplify their efforts.
In your own household, you can avoid buying any product with shark-derived ingredients and avoid contributing to the fishing industry in general, which is responsible for the capture of so many sharks as bycatch.
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