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Sharks ... predators under threat!

The world's populations of sharks and other big game fish are under serious threat from over-fishing and pollution. Recent research has estimated that 90% of the ocean's big fish have been lost in the last 20 years. If this pressure continues, many species will become extinct, damaging the ecology of the oceans.

Sharks are highly vulnerable to exploitation. This is because they are long-lived animals that can take many years to reach sexual maturity. Reproduction rates are slow and often only a handful of young are born. The result is that shark populations take many years to recover from the effects of over-fishing.

Traditionally sharks were not considered commercially valuable, and tended to be left alone. However, as traditional fisheries have become depleted, fishermen have started to exploit sharks. The market for shark products has escalated in recent years.

This includes:

  • the meat for food
  • the skin for leather products
  • the oil, blood, cartilage and squalene for traditional medicines and pharmaceuticals
  • the fins for 'shark fin soup'.

The shark trade is now global - yet shark fisheries remain unmanaged and unprotected.

Probably the single biggest rise in demand has been for fins to be used in 'shark fin soup'. This is a relatively obscure custom of the wealthy in southern China. The needles from the fins are used to add texture, but not flavour, to the soup.

The dish is now a statement of social importance in Asia. What was once eaten by the privileged few is now eaten daily by millions.

The demand for shark fins is now at an all-time high. It is one of the most expensive seafood products in the world. The process of shark 'finning' is particularly cruel. The sharks are usually live-caught. Their fins are then sliced off and the still-living shark is thrown back into the sea. The shark is unable to swim and drowns.

What can be done for sharks?

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is now looking into the problems facing sharks. So far the response has been slow.

Conservation groups such as the WWF, the Shark Trust and Wildaid are campaigning hard to promote a better understanding of sharks, both from politicians and ordinary people.

Without a global policy on sustainable management sharks will be part of the first wave of marine extinctions.

Article Date: 25 October 2007

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