Are sharks going extinct next?

Marianne Furtado de Nazareth

100 million sharks are killed by humans every single year

Contrary to what famously terrifying movies like ‘Jaws’ would have their horrified audiences believe, Marine ecologist Neil Hammerschlag says that sharks pose only a very small risk to humans. In fact, if you look at the statistics, we are much more of a threat to sharks than they are to us. Hammerschlag estimates that 100 million sharks are killed by humans every single year, which, he says, is “not good for the functioning of marine ecosystems.”

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Infact WWF says, 25% of shark species could become extinct by the next decade. He categorically states that ” Where the shark movies get it wrong is that sharks don’t have any interest in humans as a food source. There would be nothing easier for a shark than to kind of patrol the beaches during the summers and eat people if we were on the menu, because it would be a pretty easy thing to do. But the fact that a shark bite is so rare, and there are so many people in the water, just shows that we’re not on the menu.”

An amazing point that he makes is that Shark-fin soup is mainly consumed as a cultural sign of wealth.. It has no colour, no taste, no smell, in itself. In fact, to the soup, chicken broth, beef or pork broth is added just to give it flavour. So it’s consumed as a cultural sign of wealth. It’s tradition, and many people who consume shark-fin soup have no idea that it actually comes from sharks, or that sharks are in any trouble or are declining as a result, says the marine biologist.

According to the Living Blue Planet Report released by WWF in 2015, around one in four species of sharks, rays and skates is now considered to be “threatened”, primarily due to overfishing. With sharks and related species being one of the slowest reproducing of all vertebrates, these species are vulnerable to over exploitation. Globally, 14 July is observed as Shark Awareness Day to promote conservation of the species, a better understanding and to address some of the threats facing sharks in oceans across the world.

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Say the word shark and stealth, cunning and instant death are some images conjured up in our minds. Sharks are impressive hunters and apex predators, their presence being an integral indicator of a healthy ecosystem. However, contrary to perceptions, these magnificent creatures are more threatened by people than we are by sharks. Out of the 450+ species of sharks, only a few have been known to attack humans and these attacks are very rare.

Meanwhile, humans kill millions of sharks each year. Shark species worldwide are dwindling under mounting fishing pressures. They are also often accidentally caught and killed in the course of fishing operations targeting other species. Given their slow growth, maturity and small brood, they are intrinsically vulnerable to overfishing. The killing of sharks is on the rise for commercial purposes including local consumption of meat, fins for export (used in shark and rays fin soup) and industrial use of skin and cartilage. As a result, many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction.

India ranks second only after Indonesia on the global list of shark fishing nations, highlighting the need to generate awareness about the conservation of these charismatic species and their importance in marine ecosystems.

Shark fishing in India has progressed from being ‘incidental’ to ‘targeted’ over the years. The transformation occurred only during the 1990s due to increasing demand in the international market which has caused serious concerns about the sustainability of these catches. Mechanized trawl nets, gill nets and line gear operations contribute to maximum exploitation of sharks according to WWF.

Under the Wildlife Protection Act of India (1972), of the 88 shark species found in Indian waters, four have been listed as Protected under Schedule I of the WPA. Hunting, exploitation and trade of these species, namely, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), the Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) and the speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis), is banned.

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Shark fins drying outside a processing unit in southern India

Furthermore, in an effort to promote sustainable shark fisheries and better monitor how many and what species were being caught, India announced a ban on the practice of shark finning by issuing the ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ policy requiring fishers to land sharks with their fins attached. Globally, finning is a common practice of removal of shark fins for export purpose to nations, particularly China, for its use in soups and other delicacies. The remaining shark body is discarded into the sea. Unable to move effectively without their fins, most times these animals sink to the bottom of the ocean and die either through suffocation or attacked by other predators.

In India the shark fish is fully used and follows a ‘zero waste’ policy. Additionally, the Ministry of Commerce issued a notification in 2015 which bans the import and export of shark fins in India. The international trade in sharks is further regulated through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) to which India has been party since 1976. In 2013, four species of sharks found in Indian waters were listed in Appendix II of CITES. This highlights the need for strict regulation of commercial international trade in these species, requiring appropriate permits and documentation.

WWF-India aims to work with Socio-economic surveys are also being conducted to understand the impact from shark regulations in India, including the level of awareness amongst fishing communities about shark species, their conservation status, protection under wildlife laws and current fishing and trading practices.

Featured image: Great White Shark/Elias Levy/Flickr Photos/Creative Commons

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