Sharks Threatened by Overfishing

From the Pew Charitable Trust (8/7/09):

Sharks have lived on our planet for 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs. Yet unregulated commercial fishing could end all that.

An estimated 73 million sharks around the world are killed every year, primarily for their fins, which are used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Too often, fishermen slice off the valuable fins and discard the bodies at sea. This wasteful practice is known as “finning”. Finning was banned in all U.S. waters in 2000, but loopholes in the law hamper effective enforcement. As a result of this high demand and lax fishing limits, many shark species, including hammerheads and makos, are now threatened with extinction.

The Shark Conservation Act, introduced by Senator John Kerry (D-MA), would ban removal of shark fins at sea, close other loopholes in the current U.S. shark finning law and promote the conservation of sharks internationally. The legislation passed the House unanimously in March of this year.

Shark finning is the practice of catching a shark at sea, slicing off its fins – which are prized in Asian food and alternative medicine markets – and then dumping the body alive or dead back into the ocean. The practice allows fishing boats to slice off and transport many thousands of fins without hauling the less valuable shark carcasses and their meat back to shore. Shark fins can sell for as much as U.S. $300 per pound.

A recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified 35 out of 64 known pelagic shark and related ray species around the world as threatened or near threatened with extinction.  The IUCN is the international authority on whether a species is endangered; its report on sharks sounded a call to action that we all must answer.

Most sharks grow slowly, mature late and produce relatively few young. Strong demand for shark fins and meat in the face of few controls on fishing has led to serious overfishing of many populations.

As top predators, sharks play key roles in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. The effects of losing sharks are complex and hard to quantify, but the partial or complete loss of an apex predator can have far-reaching ecological and economic consequences throughout the ocean environment.

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