Sharks have an undeserved reputation for being ruthless killers. In fact, when sharks do attack humans, it’s usually because they mistake us for their usual prey—and when they realize their error, they let go. In an average year, just one person dies from a shark attack in the U.S. Compare that to the 47 annual deaths in the U.S. from lightning strikes, and you’ll have an idea of just how rare it is for sharks to kill people.
The “ruthless killers” in the human-shark relationship are actually the humans. Recent studies indicate that up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, mainly for their fins. Shark-fin soup is a popular luxury food at Asian banquets and celebrations, and demand for it is increasing as income levels rise. Shark fins are big business—a single bowl of shark-fin soup in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco can cost as much as $85. The rest of the shark has a much lower market value, which has led to the widespread and profitable practice of “shark-finning.” Fishing boats capture large numbers of sharks and slice off their fins, often while the animals are still alive. The mutilated bodies are dumped back into the ocean, where they sink helplessly to the bottom. Since sharks must swim to force water through their gills, they die slowly from suffocation. Some are attacked and eaten by other animals, unable to defend themselves. Sharks aren’t popular like dolphins and polar bears, but no animal deserves to suffer like this.
Shark populations worldwide are declining rapidly. Sharks are slow to mature, and they produce few offspring, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that a third of open-ocean shark species are currently threatened with extinction. Some species have experienced local population declines of up to 99 percent. They play a key role in ocean ecosystems as top-level predators, and their disappearance upsets the balance of the entire food web—first the sharks’ prey species flourish, and then they, in turn, decimate the populations of their own food species, causing them to die off.
Shark-finning is cruel and environmentally devastating to the entire ocean ecosystem—all for the sake of a bowl of soup at a banquet. Although shark-fin soup is popular in Asian communities around the globe, a growing number of prominent Chinese chefs, celebrities, businesspeople, and elected officials have joined with conservation groups to speak out against the practice of shark-finning.
The U.S., the U.K., and several Latin American countries have passed shark-finning bans that require sharks to be brought into port with their fins still attached. These laws help by requiring the boats to use storage space for the whole shark carcass, which reduces the total number of animals taken. But the laws are difficult and expensive to enforce, and they don’t apply in international waters. In many countries, shark-finning is still legal, and illegal poaching in protected areas is a growing problem. Shark-finning bans don’t set catch limits for sharks, and with many species nearing extinction, a better solution is needed.
Laws that reduce demand for shark fins may be the answer. Hawaii, Guam, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands have recently passed outright bans on the sale and possession of shark fins. California, Oregon, and Washington are considering similar legislation. California, with its large Asian population, is one of the world’s largest markets for shark fins outside Asia. Although shark-finning is illegal in California waters by state and federal law, the state imports large quantities of fins, contributing to shark-finning worldwide.
You can help to save sharks by not eating shark-fin soup and by encouraging your family and friends to do the same. You can also support local and state legislation banning shark-fin sales.