Some endangered animals are cute, like panda bears, furry little ferrets and cuddly baby leopards. And then there are sharks.
Despite the popularity of television programs like "Shark Week," sharks are still widely seen as something to be feared, not protected. But due to industrial-style fishing techniques and the popularity of one dish -- shark fin soup -- the global shark population and the entire ocean ecosystem are in real danger.
Overfishing and Sharks: A Grim Tally
Though the oceans seem vast and limitless, they are in fact finite, and so are the numbers of living things they hold. Just like the dense forests of North America once boggled the minds of European colonists -- until they were clear-cut almost to the point of disappearing -- the wide blue oceans are now understood as genuinely endangered.
Industrial fishing techniques like trawlers and gillnets have wreaked havoc on stocks of fish worldwide. Due largely to overfishing, scientists estimate 75 percent of the ocean's fish are being harvested faster than they can reproduce, according to Save Our Seas.
This rapid depletion of our ocean resources is particularly grim among large predatory fish like tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut. Roughly 90 percent of their populations are gone. And the Atlantic bluefin tuna -- much prized for sushi -- could disappear within a few years if overfishing isn't managed soon.
Sharks are among the hardest hit of these endangered fish, partly because they mature slowly -- it takes 10 to 30 years for sharks to reach sexual maturity -- and their reproduction rates are also slow, like those of many top predators.
Sharks are endangered by a number of factors, including the frequency with which they're bycatch, or caught in nets intended for other fish. Sea Stewards reports, "A U.S. Coast Guard ship from South Padre Island [Texas] came across an illegal, five-mile long gillnet full of dead sharks 17 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the casualties were 225 blacktip, 109 bonnethead, and 11 bull sharks.
Why Protect Sharks?
Because sharks are a top predator just about everywhere they're found, they play a critical role in balancing the ocean ecosystem and keeping the populations of fish and other species from exploding.
According to Save Our Seas, "Severe declines in sharks -– blacktips, in particular -– off the coast of North Carolina ... led to the complete collapse of a century-old bay scallop fishery that supported the local community. The removal of their sharks caused their prey, the cownose ray, to soar in numbers ... The rays decimated the scallop populations in the area to a point beyond which ... they may not be able to recover, perhaps permanently altering the ecosystem and severely affecting local livelihoods."
The Cruelty and Greed of Shark Finning
Perhaps no practice exposes the naked greed and abject cruelty of fisheries exploitation like shark finning, the practice of cutting off the dorsal fins of live sharks and dumping their bodies overboard, which causes the animals to die a slow and painful death.
Shark fins are valuable for one thing only: shark fin soup, a delicacy in China. The practice is widespread in oceans all over the world, and even in those waters where shark finning is illegal, law enforcement is virtually nonexistent because of the the size of the world's oceans and the scant resources devoted to protecting it.
Nobody knows for sure how many sharks are taken annually for their fins; estimates range from 10 million to over 70 million sharks each year. Combined with the millions that are killed as bycatch, and the endangered status of sharks becomes readily apparent.
There is some small hope for shark protection, though nothing short of a comprehensive, worldwide ban on shark finning and gillnets -- combined with real enforcement -- will ensure their continued survival.
California recently made a move to consider great white sharks as protected under the state's endangered species act. Several other states already have bans or limits on shark fishing and shark finning. Australia and South Africa also have enacted bans on great white shark killing.
Sharks are among the most ancient of marine species and have survived for over 400 million years largely unchanged. But whether they can survive another 10 years might be entirely up to us.