But you can’t stop something so terrible from happening if you don’t know about it or know why you should even care.
An estimated 100,000,000 sharks were killed last year – primarily for their fins. Indeed, their populations are down to critical levels and they are still being fished out of the ocean at unsustainable rates. In fact, recent studies indicate regional populations of certain shark species are down by 95 – 99%. That is considered functional extinction.
Many people are unaware of this issue because it happens so far away from us, out in the oceans far from shore, and far from our eyes and governmental protection. We assume that sharks are protected in marine reserves, that governing bodies have sufficient financial resources and political will to do their jobs, or that it is some other country’s problem. Many of us may even live in countries in which certain types of shark fishing is illegal – though most likely it is still occurring right under our noses.
It happens for a reason with which many of us are not familiar: the incredibly valuable shark fin—the key ingredient in a socially prized soup deeply rooted in the Asian culture. It is known as Fish Wing Soup in China and is so highly sought after because of its cultural association with health, prosperity and good fortune. Shark fin soup can sell for upwards of $100 per bowl, and while supply is plummeting, demand is at an all time high.
Yes, the incredibly lucrative market for shark fins is driving the mass slaughter. The industry, full of greed and corruption, is often likened to the illegal drug trade because it is rife with murder, mafia, and big money. Fishermen desperate to feed their families are being driven to extremes, and it is only a handful of individuals who are benefiting, at an incredible cost to those who are less fortunate.
And while it would be easy to blame a single nation or culture, the fact of the matter is, we are all culprits. In addition to shark fin, there is a healthy market for shark steaks, shark cartilige and shark liver (squalene) which is used in many cosmetic products. And, in terms of shark fishing, the US, UK, France, Spain, and Portugal join Indonesia, Tawain and Japan in the top 20 largest shark fishing nations.
We have seen it before with the ivory and rhino horn trade. This is the “extinction trade” playing itself out again, but this time, sharks are the target.
Once they know the fate facing sharks, many people wonder why they should care, already convinced the only good shark is a dead shark after watching movies like Jaws and being subjected to media-fueled hype. Hasn't the media taught us that sharks are blood-thirsty, indiscriminant monsters with an insatiable hunger for human flesh? Should we really care if they disappear? Wouldn’t the world just be a safer place?
Then comes the next surprise: contrary to all of the misinformation we have been fed humans are not even on the sharks’ menus. In fact, of 6.5 billion people that live on this planet, only one died in 2007 from a shark bite. One. Compare that to the amount of people who die from lightening strikes, car crashes, hunger, and even falling coconuts, and you realize that of all the things to be worried about, sharks are not one of them. Of the over 500 species of sharks, only a handful have ever even had encounters with humans. The truth? Sharks are magnificent creatures that are more scared of us than we could ever be of them -- and justifiably so.
If only we could let our fears go and realize sharks are misunderstood creatures that desperately need our help.
Maybe if we realized how brutal it is to fin a shark we might also care a bit more. Tragically, sharks are dragged while alive onto fishing boats where a knife with a hot blade is used to slice off all of the shark’s fins. Then, the shark is thrown back into the ocean still alive to bleed to death or suffocate.
While we enjoy our shark steaks, fish ‘n chips, shark fin soup, and shark cartilage supplements, we are actually poisoning ourselves. If this were common knowledge, we might stop endlessly creating demand. Most people don’t realize that as apex predators, sharks can accumulate levels of methyl-mercury in their flesh that are so high that a single shark steak can cause mercury poisoning, leading to sterility, nervous system issues and birth defects for those who consume it.
Or maybe if we realized that sharks keep our largest and most important ecosystem healthy – an ecosystem that provides us with much of the air we breath and food we eat – we might realize our existence, in part, is dependent on theirs. Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain, keeping our seas healthy and balanced for over 400 million years. Those oceans absorb most of the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, converting it into 70% of the oxygen we breathe. The oceans also supply us with a large percentage of the food we eat – including serving as feed for many farmed animals. Yes, all that life is kept healthy by sharks, who, as apex predators, regulate the oceans.
Destroying shark populations has the potential to continue wreaking havoc on our oceans - a critical life support system.
We don't hear how the elimination of sharks might impact our best natural defense against global warming. Or how our favorite foods might disappear as a side effect of the extinction of sharks. Or that we could lose more oxygen than is produced by all the trees and jungles in the world combined if we lose our sharks.