Prowling at the top of the food chain, sharks maintain the balance of the ocean ecosystem. Without them, lesser predators would deplete herbivorous fish that modulate the abundance of plant life.
Yet an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year—almost 11,000 per hour—usually by fishermen, sometimes by governments pandering to public fear. Since the 1950s, the shark population has plunged 90 percent.
“The main culprit is the same culprit for the decline in all fisheries: commercial fishing,” said Paul de Gelder, a former Australian Navy diver who became a shark advocate after surviving a shark attack. “The human hunger for seafood is pushing our oceans to the breaking point.”
The depletion of sharks could leave the oceans dead, de Gelder said at the EarthxOceans conference, and dead oceans mean an oxygen-deprived planet. “And you know what that means: no more humans.”
Globally, humans are hungriest for shark-fin soup, a dish that shark conservationist Alex Antoniou hopes to abolish. “Millions of sharks are killed every year for this status-symbol dish by the cruel and destructive practice of finning,” Antoniou said, “where the fins of sharks that are still alive are cut off, and the body of the sharks are thrown back into the ocean.”
The practice is not just cruel and destructive, said Antoniou, the founder of Fins Attached Marine Research and Conservation, but also pointless. “Shark fins have no nutritional value and no taste.”
Sharks are also killed incidentally by trawlers pursuing other species, fished for their meat where more prized species have become scarce, and fished for other products. “We’re now finding shark products in things like cosmetics and pet foods,” Antoniou said.
Antoniou lobbies governments to ban the shark-fin trade. Last year, Canada passed a ban, and a U.S. ban passed the House. It awaits action in the Senate.
Individuals can enact their own personal ban, de Gelder said, and go well beyond shark fins. “Really the greatest thing the average person can do is stop providing funding for the destruction of our oceans. If you do absolutely feel like you have to eat fish, at least be aware of what the sustainable fish is in your area.”
Many conservation groups have published sustainable seafood guides. But until humans reduce consumption, conservationists want to give sharks safe places to thrive.
“Marine parks I believe are one of the ways to save our underwater life,” said Rodney Fox, a legendary shark conservationist, filmmaker and shark-attack survivor. “We’re so expert now at catching fish and raping and pillaging the oceans that marine parks are probably a very important part. I think we ought to have more marine parks. Otherwise in years to come we’ll have no fish for our children.”
Some sharks are migratory predators, so a few marine parks may not be enough to shield them. Antoniou also presses governments to work together to protect shark corridors in international waters.
“Without shark swimways, these protected swimways, the sharks are getting caught between the islands, because the fishermen know the sharks are leaving these protected areas,” he said.
Sharks are running out of time, Antoniou said, but saving sharks means saving humanity. “We have no choice. We cannot fail.”