Despite their image, sharks are among the most valuable, vulnerable, and neglected creatures in the ocean. Over hundreds of millions of years, sharks have evolved to serve as important ocean predators and, as such, are not well equipped to withstand heavy predation themselves. In fact, most sharks are exceptionally susceptible to overfishing due to slow growth, late maturity, and small numbers of young. This inherent vulnerability should put sharks in the front of the line for conservation action and yet the opposite is usually true. Low economic value relative to more traditional food-fish, along with negative images of "man-eaters" too often leave sharks near the bottom of managers' priority lists.
Lack of limits on shark fishing and trade in the face of strong demand for shark products has resulted in serious declines in shark populations around the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies nearly one-third of the world's 1044 assessed shark species (including skates, rays, sawfish, and chimaeras) as Near Threatened or Threatened while some local populations are thought already extinct. Scientists warn of negative effects on marine ecosystems from depletion of these predators. Fishermen and divers, and, in turn, coastal communities, also rely on healthy shark and ray populations.
Sharks have long been sought for their meat, fins, hides, teeth, and livers. Shark liver oil, once used for industrial purposes, is now in demand for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals while shark cartilage is marketed as an unproven arthritis and cancer treatment. Demand for shark fins, used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, has surged along with the Chinese economy. The disparity in value between fins and meat creates incentive for shark "finning" - the wasteful practice of slicing off a shark's fins and discarding the body at sea. Shark finning has been banned in many places, but loopholes remain. Demand for the meat of sharks and rays is also strong in many regions, especially Europe, while new markets for previously undesirable species are developing all over the world. Significant numbers of sharks and rays are also taken incidentally as "bycatch" in fisheries focused on other species. Fishing limits based on scientific advice and the precautionary approach are urgently needed to allow for population recovery and sustainable fishing over the long-term.
Although sharks have not received the conservation attention warranted, there have been tremendous advances in shark conservation over the last two decades. The number of management tools is growing while governments, conservationists, and the public have never been so aware of the shark's plight and eager to address it. With your help, we can turn the tide.