Healthy oceans need sharks
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Forty years ago this summer, American moviegoers met an animal that "lives to kill ... a mindless eating machine ... that will swallow you whole." Those words, from the trailer for the June 1975 release of "Jaws," helped establish the erroneous, and, sadly, enduring image of sharks as vicious, voracious man-eaters.

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In the decades since the release of "Jaws," the number of sharks in the world's oceans has fallen dramatically. It is estimated that approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year, a deeply unsustainable number that is pushing some species toward extinction. Silky sharks and hammerhead sharks have been hunted to less than 20 percent of their former population size over much of their range, and oceanic whitetips have declined by over 99 percent in some regions. Many other types of sharks aren't faring much better, and immediate global action is needed to save them.

This issue is particularly significant now as members of Congress, representatives of state and local governments, academics, business experts, scientists and ocean conservationists gather in D.C. for Capitol Hill Ocean Week. In fact, President Obama has designated June as National Oceans Month, saying that "a healthy and thriving ocean is essential to all people all year."

The precipitous decline in sharks is due mainly to demand for shark fin soup in China, where it is considered a delicacy and a symbol of wealth and success. The demand for fins threatens sharks worldwide, from the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas to the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In February 2014, a San Francisco fish vendor was caught with more than 2,000 pounds of shark fins, and it is safe to assume that represents only a fraction of the fins that enter the global stream of commerce every day.

Tens of millions of sharks are either caught intentionally, or are inadvertently caught by fishermen seeking other fish, such as tuna or swordfish. This is referred to as "bycatch" or "accidental catch." In most cases, it is not really accidental at all. It is the result of indiscriminate fishing gear that almost always catches fish that are of no interest to fishermen and, as a result, are frequently thrown back into the ocean, dead or dying. One of the most widespread and pernicious of these gears consists of monofilament line that can stretch up to 40 miles behind a fishing vessel, baited with thousands of hooks. Seabirds, sea turtles and a host of other species are also hooked as they attempt to take the bait, dragged under the water and drowned.

The widespread killing of sharks must be stopped if these apex predators are to remain in the world's oceans. Their continued presence is important for many reasons, chief of which is the role they play in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. Like apex predators everywhere, they weed out the weak and the sick among the populations they prey on, and in so doing, help to ensure an appropriate balance of life in the marine food web.

From an economic standpoint, studies show that sharks are worth far more alive than dead. Many recreational divers and other ocean enthusiasts look for places to visit in which the marine ecosystem is intact, which is signaled by the presence of sharks. The lifetime value of one reef shark in the water is an estimated $1.9 million, while the same shark killed for its meat and fins is typically worth about $108.

Sharks grow slowly, reproduce relatively late in life, and have few young, factors that could put them on a fast track to extinction without aggressive conservation measures. Such efforts should cover three fronts: reducing demand for shark products; establishing strong protections to safeguard these lions of the sea; and rigorously enforcing the laws that protect sharks.

The good news is that we are starting to see progress in all of these areas. In March 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed five species of sharks — oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three species of hammerheads — that cannot be traded without CITES permits and evidence that the animals were caught sustainably and legally. Pew and other concerned groups fought hard to secure these listings, and a global effort is underway to ensure they are effectively implemented.

Nearly 70 percent of Hong Kong residents surveyed in 2014 have reduced or entirely stopped consuming shark fin soup, according to research conducted by Bloom Association and Hong Kong University. That reflects a trend that has also seen major hotel and restaurant chains in China and other parts of Southeast Asia swear off a dish that has long been featured on wedding menus.

And the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia, Honduras, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia and Palau have all agreed to create shark sanctuaries that together encompass nearly 6 million square miles of ocean. We must build on these successes, with an added sense of urgency, or risk a host of negative impacts on our oceans and the life they contain.

Jaws author Peter Benchley, who argued passionately for the protection of sharks for years until his death in 2006, said frequently that he regretted the widespread fear of sharks generated by his book and the movie. In one of his many public laments on the topic, Benchley said, "Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges."

That's good, because for too long we have given sharks ample reason to do both. Now we must work to give them a reason to thank us.

Reichert is an executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts and directs its environmental work.