As we sit down to curl up with another year of Shark Week, we are reminded yet again who are the alphas of the sea; sharks are top predators that rarely have something in their way. So, it’s sad to realize that even such apex predators are not immune to human behavior: People are in fact the biggest threat to sharks.
In a 2014 Oceana study, researchers estimated that as many as 100 million sharks are still caught and killed worldwide due to bycatch, illegal fishing and the demand for shark fins. Today, sharks are targeted worldwide by both highly industrialized fishing fleets and smaller artisanal fisheries, making it harder for endangered sharks to stand a chance of surviving. Oceana works in many ways to help protect sharks today and for the future, mostly through campaigning for better regulations and laws at sea. But, equally important to our campaigning efforts is raising public awareness and knowledge of continued threats to sharks around the world.
- Bycatch: Bycatch is the accidental capture of non-target fish and other marine life, and occurs in fisheries around the world. According to a 2014 bycatch report by Oceana, 12 million sharks and rays were captured by fisherman each year throughout the 1990's in international waters alone. Shark species most at risk for bycatch include dusky sharks and scalloped hammerheads. It is estimated that dusky shark populations off the Atlantic coast declined by 85 percent. In addition, scalloped hammerheads are extremely susceptible to fishing mortality due to their uniquely shaped and sensitive bodies. Lastly, longlines — made up of a mainline and hooks suspended in the water for several miles — catch sharks instead of the intended target at least 20 percent of the time, though it could be as high as 50 percent in Atlantic and Hawaiian fisheries.
- The Solution: Oceana works to promote the count, cap, control approach to bycatch: count all catch (including bycatch), cap bycatch by using science-based limits, and control bycatch through management measures designed to ensure bycatch limits are not exceeded and that overall bycatch is reduced over time. Additionally, better bycatch reporting procedures, incentive programs and cleaner gear can all help to minimize bycatch aboard fishing boats.
- Illegal Fishing: It was discovered through a 2013 Oceana report that up to 24 countries may be catching sharks within the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea without reporting such catches, which is required by the Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). As a result, most shark species caught within ICCAT fisheries remain poorly managed, if at all. Only very few sharks, out of a total 465 species, have international protective regulations in place, and highly threatened species continue to be landed and sold. Commercially-caught species like mako and blue sharks are fished without any limits. Thus, the IUCN has listed the mako as Vulnerable in the Atlantic Ocean and Critically Endangered in the Mediterranean Sea, while blue sharks are Near Threatened globally, according to the 2013 Oceana report.
- The Solution: To combat the problem, it is vital that countries and fishing entities fulfill their requirements to record data on shark catches, discards and fishing effort. Oceana calls upon ICCAT to establish precautionary catch limits for blue sharks in particular, as blue shark captures have increased substantially.
- Shark Fin Demand: The international fin trade is one of the greatest threats to shark species. Shark fin soup has been a traditional Chinese delicacy for thousands of years, often served to signal wealth and honor. However, shark finning is a wasteful and harmful practice in which only two to five percent of the shark is even used — once a shark's fins are cut off at sea, the shark is tossed back into the water to drown. Researchers found that 73 million sharks would have to be killed each year to match the volume of fins that are traded in the global market —a whopping 1 to 2 million tons.
- The Solution: Though illegal in many parts of the world, shark finning still happens. It happens where there are either no such regulations or where regulations are poorly enforced. Shark fin trade bans help to eliminate the market for shark fins by banning the sale, possession, trade and distribution of the fins. Oceana has campaigned for individual U.S. states to take a stand against the import and export of fins across their borders. Oceana also works internationally to protect sharks in European Union waters, as well as in Brazil. Fortunately, several milestones have been achieved within the last five years toward reducing shark finning.
Oceana actively campaigns to reduce the many threats humans pose to sharks. Take a look below to learn about some of the victories Oceana has achieved in protecting shark species worldwide.
On June 20, Texas became the 10th U.S. state to ban the trade of shark fins, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. It ensured that Texas will no longer participate in the global shark fin trade that is known to contribute to the decline of sharks around the world. Similar fin trade bans have been passed in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington, though the recent addition of Texas makes it the first Gulf Coast state to pass a shark fin trade ban.
After Oceana listed recommendations for a bycatch reporting plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service responded with steps it will be taking to better analyze the amount and type of wasted fish in Gulf of Mexico and Southeast fisheries. Though laws already mandate that federally managed fisheries must standardize the collection and reporting of bycatch data, fisheries in the Gulf and Southeast did not have a plan to implement these requirements.
Starting in 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began challenging state shark fin trade bans in the U.S., suggesting they could be overruled by federal law. In response to NOAA's actions, Oceana launched a public awareness campaign, which included posting several high-visibility ads to encourage activists to speak up against the agency. As a result, NOAA removed its challenge to all existing shark fin trade bans.
The European Union banned shark finning in its waters by requiring that all sharks caught in the area or by European vessels be landed with their fins still naturally attached. This action by the EU ended a years-long battle to close loopholes in a previous EU policy against shark finning, and ensured that the practice is better regulated and enforced. The measure will also improve what we know about how many sharks are caught and will further help to prevent endangered sharks from ending up in the fin trade.