As we gather with friends and family on the couch to watch Shark Week, we are once again provided—as is yearly tradition on the Discovery Channel—the opportunity to marvel, learn and visually experience the lives and impacts of sharks on our world’s oceans and underwater ecosystems. And though this week provides ample opportunities for viewers to learn more about all things sharks, it is important to not overlook one of the greatest threats and challenges facing sharks today: us.
The human race, and of natural consequence, human behavior, is arguably one of the most significant threats facing sharks today—with nearly 100 million sharks reportedly killed every year by humans alone. And even that number has come into question within the scientific community, with some estimates going as high as nearly 250 million+ sharks killed per year. Clearly, we have a problem here, and it’s not being caused by sharks.
Humans make the world’s oceans dangerous waters for sharks to inhabit.
So, how did we get here? As with most problems, its complicated. But, a good place to start is with the practice of illegal fishing, and the human demand for shark fins for a variety of cultural purposes. From the practice of killing sharks to “protect beaches” from the “dangers” they allegedly impose, to the consumption of shark fins in the fine-dining cuisine of the Asia-Pacific, and even to sport fishing sharks for “honor” trophies—sharks, and the fins which have long defined the shape, power and agility of the ocean’s most alpha predator, are regarded as highly valuable to many in today’s world.
There are measures in place to address illegal fishing on an international level. But, given the complex economic and political challenges of our time, the international community has laxly enforced such measures and agreements, and has done little to strengthen the accords which have been signed and agreed by the nations of the world in years past. Currently, the Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas—a regional fisheries management organization established by the international community in the late 1960’s to address the overfishing of tuna and other similar fish commonly used for human consumption—has not had to adapt or add protections for sharks. This is even when the data and facts say shark populations are at risk, with some shark species facing endangered status or at worst, extinction.
As of today, one of the only requirements established by the international community to account for shark populations and collect data on fishing practices (even if illegal or for the practice of finning sharks) is the requirement for fisheries and fishermen to accurately report the number of sharks fished and killed for sale in international markets, and a loosely enforced “ban” on finning. Even to this day, such protocols are filled with sizeable loopholes and broadly worded language, rendering such “bans” to be questionable, unenforceable and ceremonial in nature, at best.
As with many of the world’s most pressing international issues, there are solutions. The only thing that seems to be holding us back is a lack of awareness of these challenges and their significance, as well as the need for action-oriented leadership to fill the void of complacency and indifference on the world stage. Thankfully, there is hope to be had. Non-profit organizations, foundations and people-driven campaigns on social media and on college campuses are changing the way people view, see and think of sharks. This is a critical step, for if any real and meaningful change is to ever happen when it comes to shark killings, it must first come from us.