Shark Populations Plummet to Lowest Depths

Shortfin Mako Sharks off the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand © 2017 Brian Skerry, All rights reserved.

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

In a study published Wednesday, researchers found that global shark populations have decreased by 71% in the last 50 years. 24 of the 31 species of sharks and rays are now classified as endangered, and 3 of the remaining species are critically endangered. Their decline can be traced to the rapid growth of fishing fleets, which have doubled since 1950. The compounded threat from warming waters, habitat loss, and industrial fishing mean that shark populations can’t replenish fast enough and extinctions are imminent.  The heinous practice of shark finning — catching sharks just for their fins to put in soup — has also played a role.

Why This Matters: Sharks play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem. As one of the top predators, they anchor the balance of species populations. Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University explains, “When you remove top predators of the ocean, it impacts every part of the marine food web.” Without sharks, everything from fish populations to the ocean’s oxygen content could face chaotic shifts.  This is why protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 is so critical — that will provide at least some safe areas for sharks to thrive without the fishing threat.

Fishers Bully Sharks

Sharks are threatened primarily by fishing. Some sharks are hunted for their fins for use in soup and other traditional practices. Some are even hunted for their meat. Others are simply caught in the nets of fishermen seeking swordfish and tuna. The growth of engine-powered vessels since the 1950s means that nowhere on Earth is safe for shark populations. According to The Pew Trust, commercial fisheries kill an estimated 100 million sharks each year, with a range between 63 million and 273 million.

Passed Protections

Right now, we are at the beginning of what some experts are calling a “mass extinction event.” With over one million species now endangered or threatened, the loss of apex predators could trigger a devastating domino effect. “Sharks are like the lions, tigers, and bears of the ocean world, and they help keep the rest of the ecosystem in balance,” said Pimm.

There have been some recent efforts to protect shark populations globally. At the 2019 U.N. Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), 100 nations voted in favor of passing protections for 18 species of sharks and rays. The resolution requires permits for the sale of shark products in any country where they are sold, greatly deterring both the sale and catching of sharks.

Although these sharks in American waters should be protected under the Endangers species act, Trump dealt a massive blow to those protections just before leaving office. The rollback reduced protections for “threatened” species and prioritized economic factors in future policymaking, outraging scientists and advocates. “Recovering species is a biological question, not an economic question,” said Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science at Arizona State University.

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