Our impact on the oceans over the last century has been greater than all previous centuries combined. We are quickly changing the oceans' chemistry, temperature and biodiversity while at the same time, only just beginning to understand these changes' implications. We know so little really; we are still learning about the oceans' important role in our climate, atmosphere, and planet, still exploring their depths, and still discovering their inhabitants. And as we slowly build our knowledge base, human-driven phenomenons such as pollution, habitat destruction, global warming, and overfishing are ravaging our seas – and all that dwell within.
Sharks sit at the forefront of this lethal combination of catastrophes, vulnerable to all. Sharks are being fished at the rate of up to 73 million sharks per year. Although regional populations of large sharks have all but disappeared in places like the North Atlantic where their numbers are down by 95%, they are still being hunted into oblivion such that if current trends continue, we will probably see the last of them during our lifetimes. Bottom-dwelling sharks are chased by trawlers, whose fishing practices are so destructive, the muddy telltale signs of the underwater bulldozers demolishing the sea beds can actually be seen from satellites. And pelagic (open ocean/high seas) sharks frequently join the 43 million tons of bycatch caught by fisherman on longlines and nets.
Sharks cannot sustain the fishing pressure that some other bony fish can. You see, sharks reproduce far more slowly. Other types of fish tend to reach sexual maturity quickly—perhaps within a year—and lay millions of eggs each year. In contrast, sharks reach sexual maturity after 10 or more years and then produce very few offspring. This makes it even harder for sharks to naturally recover from such relentless overfishing.
At the same time, sharks are also struggling with the contamination of their environment. Not only have sharks absorbed the highly toxic methyl-mercury which compromises, amongst other things, their ability to reproduce successfully, but now scientists are also finding other strange neuro-toxins (possibly linked to brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's) in their flesh. Toxic chemicals, which enter the oceans by dumping or run-off, enter the food chain and become increasingly concentrated as they make their way up the food chain. Even the tons and tons of plastics in our ocean – forming two "islands" twice the size of Texas in the Pacific and Indian oceans – are decomposing to the point that the polymer particles, which will take hundreds if not thousands of years to dissipate, are consumed by ocean animals. Some seawater contains 7 times more plastic than zooplankton, and this plastic poison also enters the food chain. All of these chemicals are literally poisoning the sharks – and anyone who dares to eat them.
As if not threatened enough, the struggling sharks are also battling with the destruction of habitat. Many sharks and rays rely upon estuaries as nurseries for their young. And sadly, estuaries around the world are disappearing. Not only are the fragile ecosystems more susceptible to pollution and overfishing, they are often considered prime real estate. Many estuaries have fallen victim – either directly or indirectly due to the topographical changes forced by urban development.
In addition to the factors challenging other marine creatures, sharks face an even more urgent threat: the demand for their fins is skyrocketing, increasing their value exponentially. Indeed a single whale shark fin can sell for upwards of US $50,000. As the demand for shark fin far outweighs supply, no sharks are safe from desperate fisherman – and sharks everywhere – even the handful that live in the few areas that are protected – are under attack. In the last 50 years, the slaughter of sharks has risen by 400%, and by 2017, some scientists anticipate that 20 species of sharks could become extinct.
Make no mistake, the process is brutal – particularly for a sentient, intelligent creature that does indeed experience pain. Sharks are pulled from the oceans, often alive, after fighting for hours if not days on long lines, to have their fins sliced off with a hot blade. Then, they are thrown back into the sea, unable to move, to die a slow and painful death – either suffocating, bleeding to death or being eaten alive.
Shark fin soup, a traditional cultural delicacy, has been a highlight at important occasions such as corporate banquets, weddings, and New Year's celebrations for centuries. But, over the last 30 years, the number of people eating shark fin has risen from a few million in the 1980s to more than 300 million today. Shark fin is a tasteless ingredient in this culturally important soup, but it is so highly sought after given its association with health, prosperity, and good fortune that it can sell for upwards of $100 a bowl. And while the supply is plummeting, the demand for shark fin soup is at an all time high, putting our planet's sharks, and overall health, at risk.
Indeed, the incredibly lucrative market for shark fins is, more than any other factor, driving the slaughter of sharks. This extinction trade, full of greed and corruption, is often likened to the illegal drug and weapons trades, as each of these is rife with murder, mafia, and multi-million dollar deals. Fishermen, frantic to feed their families, will stop at nothing to bring home boatloads of fins and are being driven to extremes, though it is only a handful of individuals (wholesale traders and middlemen) who are reaping the benefits – at an incredible cost to the rest of us.
There are no international laws effective in stopping this destruction of sharks and no international governing bodies assigned to implement or enforce existing local laws. Sharks will continue to be ruthlessly hunted until we all do our part. There are a growing number of national laws – which require enforcement, which is where Sea Shepherd can make a big impact.
While Sea Shepherd performs enforcement in accordance with international and national laws where we can, the problem is so widespread, and the oceans so big, we need YOU to help us stop it by supporting the campaign, building awareness, and stopping the demand.