Sharks have been around for 400 million years, long before the first dinosaurs wandered the earth. They are among the swiftest and most graceful fish in the sea. Highly diverse and unchallenged at the top of the marine food chain, sharks have always been thought of as the world's most invincible creatures.
Shark populations are rapidly declining because of overfishing. In China and a number of other countries the demand for shark fin, which is valued as an aphrodisiac, has been soaring, reaching as much as $200 a pound.
Commercial fishermen are responding to this lucrative market. While the consumption of meat from other parts of the shark is also on the rise, preserving and shipping shark meat to Asia is expensive. So some fishermen simply cut the fins from the sharks they catch and throw the living fish back into the water. Unable to swim or hunt, the mutilated shark thrashes around until it dies.
The toll from 'finning'
The full toll taken by "shark finning" is unknown. However, the number of fish that fall victim to this cruel and wasteful practice is estimated to be as high as 1 million a year. According to TRAFFIC, a conservation group that monitors international commerce in wildlife, trade in shark fins doubled between 1980 and 1990.
Finning is reminiscent of the wanton slaughter of millions of bison in the last century by hunters who simply cut out their tongues and left the rest of the animal to rot on the plains - a practice that almost led to the extinction of the American buffalo. It is particularly reprehensible at a time when scientists and conservationists report that shark populations are in trouble worldwide.
With the collapse of fisheries in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, commercial fishermen have sought to replace traditional groundfish such as cod, haddock, and herring with fish that were previously not brought to market, including sharks. For example, the dogfish, a medium-sized shark that was considered to be a "trash" fish, is now caught and sold in such numbers - close to 50 million pounds taken from Northwest Atlantic waters alone last year - that many experts fear this once-abundant species will all but disappear. Many other species of shark continue to be fished well beyond levels at which populations can replace themselves.
Unlike most other fish species, shark populations are difficult to rebuild once they collapse. Most sharks reach sexual maturity at a relatively advanced age, have long gestation periods, and produce relatively few young.
The shark's bad image
Regrettably, many people are unconcerned about the fate of sharks, in great part because of their portrayal in the media as a menace to humans. The truth is, however, that sharks rarely attack people. In 1995, there were a total of 59 recorded shark attacks worldwide, of which 10 resulted in human fatalities. That same year, however, it is estimated that as many as 90 million sharks were killed by people. If allowed to continue, this phenomenal toll will result in the eventual disappearance of these great fish, with significant consequences for both people and nature.
While much is still unknown about the role played by sharks in the marine world, it is thought to be of paramount importance. As the top predators of the sea, sharks help regulate the numbers and health of other marine species with which they coexist. When hammerhead sharks were wiped out off the the northwest coast of Florida, there was a proliferation of stingrays on which sharks feed.
Shark control backfires
In some coastal areas of Australia where octopus-eating shark populations were sharply reduced, lobster-eating octopuses proliferated, which led to a steep drop in the commercial lobster catch. Sharks, which are resistant to many diseases and heal quickly when wounded, contain genetic information that is potentially of value to humans.
Finally, sharks represent a potentially important source of protein for the world's growing population. Unless shark fisheries are regulated in ways that ensure their stability, they will decline just as other once seemingly inexhaustible fish species have dwindled in recent years.
The US National Marine and Fisheries Service has banned shark finning in some coastal waters and has prepared a draft plan for protecting shark populations. But there is little supervision and enforcement. Moreover, the problem is not limited to US waters - it is global.
What is needed is a total ban on the gruesome practice of finning and a workable international accord to preserve and effectively manage shark populations. It would be a tragedy if we destroyed one of the oldest creatures on earth.
For as one prominent marine biologist has noted, "Sharks are a part of the way the world is supposed to be." We have every reason to keep it that way.
Joshua Reichert directs the environmental program of The Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the largest foundation supporters of marine conservation in the United States.