Sharks are once again mesmerizing millions of viewers as part of Shark Week. But in reality, the tables are turned, and it's sharks that are struggling to survive.
An average of 65 people worldwide are injured by the ocean's top predator each year—with only two or three deaths—but up to 73 million sharks are killed annually by people. Most of them die when fishermen slice off their fins to sell, primarily to Asian markets as a soup ingredient.
The Pew Environment Group is working around the globe to save these important animals. So far, the campaign has helped Palau, the Maldives, the Bahamas and Honduras designate their waters as sanctuaries. Now 926,645 square miles (2.4 million square kilometers) of ocean is off limits to shark fishing. These nations realized that sharks are worth more alive for tourism than dead in a fishing boat. Pew plans to work with more countries to create a network of sanctuaries around the world.
The leadership of individual nations is important, because there are virtually no limits on how many sharks can be caught on the high seas. International trade restrictions apply to only a handful of species, even though nearly one-third of the world's sharks are threatened or near threatened with extinction.
Pew, which also works with a group of conservation-minded shark attack survivors, is advocating at the United Nations and with organizations that govern fishing policies to protect the most at-risk shark species and fishing of threatened ones. It's important that nations honor a commitment they made more than a decade ago to develop and implement shark conservation plans. Requiring safer fishing gear that doesn't snare sharks by accident would save untold numbers of these animals.
Sharks are vital for healthy oceans and habitats such as coral reefs and sea grass beds. For more than 400 million years, they have helped regulate the variety and abundance of species below them in the marine food web.
Losing sharks could have consequences that affect the entire ocean ecosystem—a more frightening prospect than any attack show on Shark Week.