Sharks Are Being Killed at Rising Rates Despite Increased Regulations

Global bans on finning have inadvertently opened up shark meat markets, prompting demand for threatened species, a new study reveals

almost 20 swimming sharks
A group of grey reef sharks and blacktip reef sharks at La Vallée Blanche in French Polynesia in 2018. Alexis Rosenfeld via Getty Images

Roughly 70 percent of countries today have enacted policies meant to protect a diminishing shark population—yet the fate of the world’s sharks remains in murky waters.

Despite a tenfold increase in regulations against finning from 2012 to 2019, shark mortality due to fishing has jumped from 76 million to 80 million per year, according to a new study published last week in the journal Science. Twenty-five million of these annual deaths represent threatened species.

With so many policies in place, “we should have seen a signal in reduced mortality,” says study lead author Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, to the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni. “The surprising result is that we didn’t.”

Worm and his colleagues analyzed catch data and global mortality patterns for an estimated 1.1 billion sharks. They tracked fishery statistics from 150 countries and interviewed 22 experts—including scientists, conservationists and employees at international fisheries—in their three-year-long effort to fill in gaps about shark mortality.

“This was really a challenge,” Worm tells National Geographic’s Tim Vernimmen, “as shark fisheries are notoriously underreported. We compiled everything we could find, from catch numbers to data from observers on boats in international waters to estimates of coastal fishing that include recreational, artisanal and even illegal fishing.”

From this analysis, the team reached their unexpected conclusion: Rather than curbing the overexploitation of sharks, countries’ regulations may have unwittingly encouraged new demand. These policies target finning, which involves harvesting a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the body overboard, leaving the animal victim to an inevitable death. But the scientists say fishers, now required to land entire sharks, have shifted their focus to the bulk of the catch: its meat.

Since finning regulations picked up, shark meat markets have emerged in full force. A report by the World Wildlife Fund valued the global trade in shark and ray meat at $2.6 billion between 2012 and 2019, with more than 200 countries and territories importing and exporting it.

shark fins on a wooden platform on a beach
Shark fins at a shark fishing camp in Mexico. Mark Conlin / VW PICS / UIG via Getty Images

In fact, shark meat has snuck its way onto the plates of unassuming diners worldwide. In 2019, a study found that about 90 percent of samples from fish-and-chip takeout restaurants in southern England contained spiny dogfish, a threatened shark species, by labeling it under other names.

“Shark meat has become a little bit of the mystery meat in seafood,” study co-author Darcy Bradley, an ocean scientist at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, tells the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni.

While shark meat has a reputation as a fixture in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, the study demonstrates its prevalence is much wider. Shark is covertly used as an alternative for expensive seafood, such as swordfish, according to National Geographic. Similarly, the production of many medicinal and cosmetic products containing squalene, which is commonly derived from sharks, may have also encouraged fishing efforts.

With roughly one in three shark species threatened with extinction, ocean ecosystems are at risk of becoming dramatically altered by the absence of these apex predators. And losing sharks could be disruptive for island nations such as the Bahamas and the Maldives, which rely on ocean biodiversity to sustain local economies and livelihoods.

“They are a canary in the coal mine,” Bradley says to the Washington Post. “They are an indicator species that’s going to let us know if something is problematic within our ecosystems.”

Not all hope is lost for the essential predators, however. The researchers determined some regulatory efforts are effective in reducing shark mortality: Regional prohibitions of shark fishing led to a 40 percent reduction in mortality compared to regions without shark fishing regulations, per the Washington Post.

Finning regulations, however, were not meant to reduce shark catches, says Colin Simpfendorfer, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Australia who was not involved with the study, to National Geographic. These rules were intended to decrease the animals’ suffering from finning and prevent them from being killed just for their fins. But regulations that directly target shark mortality—not finning alone—should be pursued to protect sharks as a whole, the study authors tell Live Science’s Melissa Hobson.

Building admiration for the creatures could also provide a solution. Flourishing dive tourism and sanctuary efforts around sharks have yielded promising results, as regions such as the Pacific island nation of Palau, the Maldives and the Bahamas have experienced success with shark havens.

“The Bahamas, for example, have discovered that sharks were worth much more as a dive attraction for the ecotourism industry, which is booming,” Worm tells National Geographic.

Whether it be through stronger catch limits, regional fishing prohibition or government-enforced protection, shark mortality is “a solvable problem,” he tells Live Science. “But it’s a problem that really needs to be tackled now, because sharks have not much time left.”

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