Sharks caught in jaws of human appetite

Overfishing has put sharks in peril, with some 100 million animals killed every year.

There's an SOS from the world's oceans, but it's not coming from endangered whales, netted dolphins, or eroding coastlines. It's coming from sharks.

Around the globe, shark populations are in a free fall caused by overfishing, accidental harvest, pollution, and a brutal, wasteful practice known as finning.

While a "Save Our Sharks" campaign doesn't exactly engender the kind of warm, tender feelings as "Save the Whales," some experts say their situation is even more dire. These ancient, mysterious creatures, they say, are vital members of marine ecosystems and barometers warning of trouble ahead.

"When most people think of sharks, they think of 'Jaws.' But the plight of sharks for too long has been out of sight, out of mind," says David Wilmot of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program. "Our challenge is to bring the story of their disturbing declines out of the water."

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year for various kinds of human consumption, be they fins for soup in the Far East, meat for fish-and-chips dinners in North America and Europe, or cartilage packed into pills which are alleged to help fight illness.

Hard-hit species

Echoing population dips internationally, three species of sharks that used to be common along American coastal waters - sandbar, black-tipped, and dusky sharks - have all declined between 75 and 90 percent. Dozens of other species similarly have become rare.

Late to mature, slow to grow, and reproducing only small numbers of offspring, sharks are vulnerable to exploitation and recovery can take decades. Off California, soup fin sharks, overharvested half a century ago for their oil and meat, still remain depleted long after catch levels were reduced.

"One fascinating aspect is the enormous diversity of animals that are called sharks," says Scott Burns, who oversees the marine conservation program at World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

Sharks range from the obvious, like the most fearsome predator in the sea, the great white, to the gentle whale shark that eats plankton, to tiny varieties like the cookie cutter shark, which takes mouse-size bites.

"Some of these are apex predators in the food chain and any time you remove them it casts ripples throughout the ecosystem that are unpredictable," Mr. Burns says. "It's like playing Russian roulette with key animals in the ocean."

Heeding the concern, two Republican members of Congress from both coasts, Reps. Jim Saxton of New Jersey and Randy Cunningham of California, introduced legislation to ban shark finning in all US waters. Their bill also calls upon Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to push for a global ban - a gesture that conservationists admit is not likely to sell well in Asian nations.

Earlier this year, the world's leading shark researchers gathered in California to discuss declines in open-seas and deep-dwelling sharks, called pelagic sharks.

Alarmed by recent trends, they unanimously called upon the US and its trading partners to adopt an unprecedented "International Shark Action Plan" modeled after successful campaigns designed to save whales.

The most important element, scientists say, is getting a handle on the status of shark numbers and closely tracking exploding consumer demand.

According to the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, the practice of finning - where fishermen cut off sharks' highly valued fins, then leave the sharks to die - increased 2,000 percent between 1991 and 1998 around the Hawaiian Islands alone. The campaign represents a coalition of national American conservation organizations including the Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Recently, the Hawaii state legislature joined 17 other states by voting to tightly restrict finning, but US Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii so far has resisted efforts to entertain broad federal legislation out of concern for the future of fishermen.

But Representative Cunningham, a sportsman, said the wasteful practice of shark finning disturbs him.

Others say lawmakers must show the resolve to take action on sharks.

"I understand the economic reality for individual fishermen," Mr. Wilmot says from his office in Islip, N.Y., near some famous shark fishing areas where populations have virtually disappeared. "A lot of people have a mortgage to pay, bills on their boats, and that clouds their judgment.

"But it shouldn't cloud the government's judgment," he says.

A year ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service moved to reduce the commercial and recreational harvest of sharks, but the ruling still is under challenge in court. Meanwhile, under the old catch rates, shark numbers continue to decline, heightening the calls for tougher restrictions.

No worldwide net

The efforts undertaken by the National Marine Fisheries Service to better manage shark fisheries are a welcome step, observers say, but without enforcement, regulations can prove futile as Asia's appetite for fins grows.

"The demand for shark products around the world is likely to increase rather than decrease, and shark fisheries are almost completely unmanaged," says Burns.

Even with the US taking a hard line, sharks are still imperiled by a lack of international cooperation. Only Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have taken similar steps to join a united front.

"At the end of the day, when we're forced to assess how many sharks are being saved, the answer is: not enough," says Wilmot.

"They're going down faster than they're being spared," he adds. "If fishermen think it's bad now with fewer shark numbers and more restrictions, they need to realize it will be a lot worse later if catches are completely shut down because there aren't any sharks left."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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