Sharks have roamed the seas for more than 400 million years, but today many species are being hunted to extinction. Now, some unlikely allies have emerged for the ocean’s top predators—several of the world’s smallest countries have generated a wave of conservation measures. In 2008, there was no such thing as a shark sanctuary. These days, it’s a different story.
Since the 1990s, growing demand for shark products, specifically fins, has coincided with serious population declines for a number of shark species in regions throughout the world. In addition to directed shark fisheries, sharks are increasingly caught by vessels targeting other fish like tuna and swordfish. A new scientific review released this week highlights the extent of this shark bycatch problem. While the pace of fishing has increased, precautionary management has not been implemented at the same rate. As many as 73 million sharks are killed in order to supply the fin trade each year. That’s 200,000 per day, every day.
Further illuminating the grand scale of the shark-product industry, Pew recently discovered and released to the public photo and video documentation of fishermen bringing sharks and fins into Taiwan to enter the market for sale. A report by Pew and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, showed that the country ranked fourth in the world in catch volume for sharks, after Indonesia, India and Spain.
It is estimated that 30 percent of shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. That’s a critical concern, as these animals are essential to maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem. They regulate the diversity and abundance of species below them in the food chain, including commercially important fish. They play a similar role in the ocean to that of land-based predators, like wolves in Yellowstone or lions on the Serengeti. Sharks cull the sick, diseased and wounded, keeping prey species’ populations healthy.
More and more, people are starting to recognize how indispensible these ocean predators truly are, and many countries are taking strong measures to protect them. I’ve found that when policymakers and leaders see the global picture of the number of sharks taken out of the oceans each year, they recognize the vital role their individual country can play. This effect has spurred the phenomenon of shark sanctuaries and other protections that continues to gain momentum.
In 2009, the small Pacific island country of Palau banned shark fishing in its 600,000 square kilometers of water, creating the world’s first shark sanctuary. A mere six months later, the Maldives joined the cause, protecting its more than 920,000 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean.
In the Western Hemisphere, Honduras was the first to act. In June, the country declared a shark sanctuary in all of its marine areas, which are the size of Wyoming. The Bahamas followed soon after, protecting its 40-plus species of sharks, followed by Pacific island territory Tokelau in September.
Recently, the Marshall Islands declared its waters in the central Pacific off-limits to shark fishing as well, creating the largest sanctuary to date. That’s nearly 2 million square kilometers, or four times the size of California. All told, in three years the world’s oceans went from no shark-specific protected area to more than 4.7 million square kilometers of dedicated zones.
In addition, many countries have taken other measures to guard against overexploitation. After Pew’s release of the disturbing images of vulnerable shark species being readied for market, Taiwan’s fisheries agency reiterated plans announced in July to enact a finning ban in 2012. This builds on a similar decision by Chile this year, and powerful fin trade bans in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and Guam. The message from coastal and island countries across the globe has been one of growing support for an animal integral to the health of their waters and economies.
But more will have to be done if these ancient kings of the ocean are to fully recover from decades of overfishing. More countries need to join this cause, and we’re optimistic that sharks will have many new guardians in the coming months and years. These predators serve a vital purpose in our oceans, and the imbalance that their extinction would bring is a preventable tragedy.
Photo Credit: Terry Goss / Marine Photobank