As a part of the generation that grew up watching “Jaws,” my wife and many others share President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE's gut-level aversion to sharks. But if the conservation-themed documentaries that feed our fascination for them have taught us anything, it is that the fearsome caricature presented in the film gets these fish all wrong. Instead, they are some of the most captivating, complex and ecologically important creatures in the ocean. They also very rarely pose a danger to people.
The truth is that sharks have much more to fear from us than we from them.
Out of the 1,250 species of cartilaginous fish—sharks and their relatives, which include skates and rays – as many as one-quarter are estimated to be threatened with extinction, and the conservation status of nearly half is poorly known. According to research, the main driver of shark and ray population decline is overfishing and unsustainable trade to supply global demand for fins, meat, oil, cartilage, and other products. These fishes are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation—they grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young.
The U.S. actually has strong laws in place to prevent this type of overexploitation. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires catch quotas and other measures to support sustainability and allow overfished stocks to rebound. This includes a longstanding ban on the abhorrent practice of shark finning, in which the fin is removed and the rest of the shark thrown back. A recent analysis of global shark catches identified several U.S. shark fisheries as meeting that study’s criteria for biological sustainability and science-based fisheries management.
Therefore, a solution to this global problem lies in extending effective U.S. conservation standards to the rest of the world. In most waters, shark, ray and skate fisheries are subject to very little management; many populations are overfished and few fisheries are regulated or monitored so the impacts of fishing pressure are unknown or unchecked.
Scientists and conservationists believe that trade incentives can help stop the decline, which is why we applauded when Reps. Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterLaura Loomer says she's tested positive for COVID-19 How Donald Rumsfeld helped save the presidency Gun deaths surge in Iowa ahead of loosened handgun restrictions MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field MORE (R-Fla.) introduced the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act.
The bill would require any countries that wish to export shark, ray or skate products to the U.S. to demonstrate that they are effectively managing their fisheries, comparable to our measures for sustainability. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would certify that those products coming into the U.S. were from fisheries subject to responsible, science-based management to ensure the long-term health of shark, ray and skate populations. This approach is intended to incentivize other fishing countries to meet those standards or risk losing access to the U.S. market.
Fishermen in the U.S. are behind this idea because it levels the playing field with the rest of the world. Those who are already adhering to responsible management standards here in the U.S. should not be undercut by unsustainable catch and products coming in from overseas.
Conservationists and scientists also believe that this is a valuable approach to stemming shark overfishing worldwide. This problem needs to be addressed at a global scale, and trade incentives are an effective tool to influence the commerce of other sovereign countries. In fact, more than 60 scientists with expertise on sharks and rays sent a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee advocating for the passage of the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act as a strong framework to save sharks, rays and skates. Many other conservation groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and many of its individual members, are united in pushing this approach.
Evolutionarily, sharks are among the oldest creatures on Earth; they even predate trees by almost 50 million years. They play a critical role in marine ecosystems as apex predators upon which the health of the oceans relies, but they need our help. And while sharks may look frightening, a world without these amazing creatures is a scarier proposition indeed—and I remind my wife of that every time the subject comes up.
John Calvelli is Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Executive Vice President of Public Affairs.