Forget Jaws. The scariest thing about sharks is their tenuous future.
Though often misperceived as villainous denizens of the deep, these top predators play an important role in preserving the balance of the ocean's ecosystems by keeping their prey's populations in check.
And so, much to the chagrin of biologists and environmentalists, the decimation of some 1,200 species of sharks and their closest relatives, including skates and rays, is likely to have negative ecological and economic consequences. Yet, for many reasons, the decline continues.
First, their biology is against them. Sharks typically grow slowly and take years to reach sexual maturity, and females bear few offspring over the course of their lifetimes. Second, their fins are valuable, especially for use in soup prized throughout Asia; "finning"—slicing off a shark's fins and tossing its carcass back into the ocean—is commonplace around the globe. Add to that the thousands of sharks that perish each year as bycatch (netted unintentionally) in other fisheries or die as a result of habitat destruction and pollution.
The situation may be grim, but it is not a lost cause.
"Shark conservation is high now in public and official and civil societal awareness, and there are...innumerable efforts" underway to stop the abuses, particularly of the "large-bodied species that are the focus of offshore fisheries," says shark expert Leonard Compagno, director of the Shark Research Institute based in Princeton, N.J.
The U.S. is a leader in shark conservation efforts, according to Sonja Fordham, policy director of Brussels-based Shark Alliance and shark conservation program director of the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C. New National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations took effect today that are aimed at ending the brutal practice of "finning" by requiring anglers to bring sharks to the dock with all their fins in place.
But conservationists say they still have a long way to go. Among the major challenges: improving the public's image of the much-maligned predator, which is based on the relatively few shark attacks that take place (considering the number of people who surf, snorkel, swim and dive in the ocean). According to International Shark Attack File statistics, there were a total of 71 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide last year, only one of which was fatal. When sharks do attack, they are more likely to strike lone individuals than people in groups.
"It's an uphill battle," to gain public support for shark conservation, Fordham says. "Sharks are not nearly as beloved as whales, dolphins or sea turtles. People misunderstand them, and some people are afraid of them. But more and more people are understanding the importance of balance in the ecosystem and the importance of predators."
The International Committee on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, an organization in Madrid, Spain, concerned with the conservation of tunas and some other large fish species, is currently completing a stock assessment of pelagic sharks that may provide essential data for the management of some species, such as the endangered porbeagle shark. At the same time, organizations such as Shark Alliance and the Ocean Conservancy are pushing for other nations to follow the U.S. lead and adopt "fins attached" regulations. Ultimately, Fordham says, the international catch limits and conservation programs will have to be instituted for threatened and endangered species.
But it may be too little, too late.
"When it comes to shark conservation, the key is really with the public," Fordham says. "Shark conservation programs are not going to advance without public support. Managers are still not used to hearing about concern for sharks, so a few letters can actually make a difference."