Out of sight out of mind. This is why so many people are surprised when we tell them that many shark populations are facing extinction.
An estimated 73,000,000 sharks were killed last year – primarily for shark fins. Indeed, their populations are down to critical levels and they are still being fished out of the ocean at unsustainable rates. In fact, recent studies indicate regional populations of certain shark species are down by 95 – 99%. That is considered functional extinction.
Many people are unaware of this issue because it happens so far away from us, out in the oceans far from shore, and far from our eyes and governmental protection. We assume that sharks are protected in marine reserves, that governing bodies have sufficient financial resources and political will to do their jobs, or that it is some other country’s problem. Many of us may even live in countries in which certain types of shark fishing is illegal – though most likely it is still occurring right under our noses.
It happens for a reason with which many of us are not familiar: the incredibly valuable shark fin — the key ingredient in a socially prized shark fin soup deeply rooted in the Asian culture. It is known as Fish Wing Soup in China and is so highly sought after because of its cultural association with health, prosperity and good fortune. Shark fin soup can sell for upwards of $100 per bowl, and while supply is plummeting, demand is at an all time high.
Yes, the incredibly lucrative market for shark fins is driving the mass slaughter. The industry, full of greed and corruption, and often lawless, is likened to the illegal drug trade because it is rife with murder, mafia, and big money. Fishermen desperate to feed their families are being driven to extremes, and it is only a handful of individuals who are benefiting, at an incredible cost to those who are less fortunate.
Once they know the fate facing sharks, many people wonder why they should care, already convinced the only good shark is a dead shark after watching movies like Jaws and being subjected to media-fueled hype. Hasn't the media taught us that sharks are blood-thirsty, indiscriminant monsters with an insatiable hunger for human flesh? Should we really care if they disappear? Wouldn’t the world just be a safer place?
Then comes the next surprise: contrary to all of the misinformation we have been fed humans are not even on the sharks’ menus. In fact, of 6.5 billion people that live on this planet, only one died in 2007 from a shark bite. One. Compare that to the amount of people who die from lightening strikes, car crashes, hunger, and even falling coconuts, and you realize that of all the things to be worried about, sharks are not one of them. Of the over 500 species of sharks, only a handful have ever even had encounters with humans. The truth? Sharks are magnificent creatures that are more scared of us than we could ever be of them -- and justifiably so.
Maybe if we realized how brutal it is to fin a shark we might also care a bit more. Tragically, sharks are dragged while alive onto fishing boats where a knife with a hot blade is used to slice off all of the shark’s fins. Then, the shark is thrown back into the ocean still alive to bleed to death or suffocate.
And while we consume shark steaks, fish ‘n chips, shark fin soup, and shark cartilage supplements, we are actually poisoning ourselves. If this were common knowledge, we might stop endlessly creating demand. Most people don’t realize that as apex predators, sharks can accumulate levels of methyl-mercury in their flesh that are so high that a single shark steak can cause mercury poisoning, leading to sterility, nervous system issues and birth defects for those who consume it.
Or maybe if we knew that sharks keep our largest and most important ecosystem healthy – an ecosystem that provides us with much of the air we breath and food we eat – we might realize our existence, in part, is dependent on theirs. Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain, keeping our seas healthy and balanced for over 400 million years. Those oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, converting it into over 50% of the oxygen we breathe. The oceans are our best natural defense against global warming. And, the oceans also supply us with a large percentage of the food we eat – including serving as feed for many farmed animals. Yes, all that life is kept healthy by sharks, who, as apex predators, regulate the oceans. Destroying shark populations has the potential to continue wreaking havoc on our oceans - a critical life support system.
So whether you are like us and you absolutely love sharks and cannot imagine an ocean without them, or you simply realize the loss of the sharks from this planet has huge, far-reaching implications that cannot be ignored, the time to act is now. We must work together, take flight and save our sharks.
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