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This Shark Week, let's love an animal that scares us

As Shark Week appears on the Discovery Channel for the 25th year, I have to wonder whether in another 25 years, it will air on The History Channel instead. After more than 400 million years on planet Earth, sharks are being decimated by overfishing and the lucrative trade in shark fins.

By Anna M. Clark / August 13, 2012

Discovery Communications headquarters is decorated with a great white shark during its popular series 'Shark Week' in 2006. Op-ed contributor Anna M. Clark writes: 'Americans may not be able to stop the huge demand in China, but they can cut off supply and curb demand in their own corner of the world.'

Cameron Davidson,Discovery Channel/PRNewsFoto

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Dallas, Texas

This week marks the 25th airing of one of Discovery Channel’s best-loved educational series, Shark Week. But as human greed drives sharks toward extinction, I have to wonder if, 25 years from now, Shark Week will run on The History Channel instead.

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After more than 400 million years on planet Earth, sharks are being decimated by overfishing and the lucrative trade in shark fins. Shark-fin soup, a delicacy symbolizing wealth and status in China, now sells for as much as $100 a bowl in that country. Fishermen cut off the fins, then toss sharks back into the ocean where they bleed to death.

Humans take the lives of approximately 73 million sharks a year, and threaten one-third of shark species with extinction. Brutal reports of thousands of lifeless, finless sharks found on the ocean floor, such as this report about the Colombian coast, reveal the recklessness of turning nature into a commodity.

Because sharks mature late and produce few young, they cannot possibly reproduce at the same rate at which we kill them. By contrast, shark attacks only lead to about 6 to 12 reported deaths of humans per year globally.

Naturally, there are many reasons why protecting sharks is not the cause of choice for the average Westerner. For one thing, sharks are scary. And the centuries-old practice of eating them – part cultural tradition, part big business – is mostly happening on the other side of the world.

Most Americans don't eat shark-fin soup, so why should they feel responsible for the slaughter that makes it possible? Besides, with crises such as hunger threatening nearly one billion people worldwide, and the dark economic cloud looming over the rest of us, we have more pressing concerns.

Those are all the very excuses that, until recently, I used.

But we can no longer afford to make excuses. Over half of the world’s people depend on the oceans to provide their primary protein sources. If hunger is a global crisis now, imagine what will happen when those food sources disappear as the marine food chain is drastically altered. Today, we risk losing sharks – and tens of thousands of other species we depend on – to what scientists are calling the sixth great extinction (think dinosaurs).

This is unique to the last five extinction periods in history for one reason: Humans are causing it by driving sharks and millions of other living creatures toward the endangered list in order to uphold tradition and economic structures. As shark numbers decrease, fin traders and fisherman may ultimately run themselves out of business, but not before other parts of the ecosystem collapse.

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