Mar 4

The most accurate assessment yet of the consequences of commercial shark fishing estimates that around 100 million sharks are killed every year.

shark killed by fishermen, lying on beach

shark killed by fishermen, lying on beach

Shark warning

Ahead of the 16th meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species that runs from the 3rd to the 15th of March this year, researchers are again warning that sharks are in need of better protection. A new report, published in the journal Marine Policy, estimates the annual number of sharks killed by commercial fishing to be around 100 million, although the actual number could be anywhere between 63 million and 273 million.

The large range in these estimates is due to the poor quality of data available. However, the median estimate of 100 million is by far the most accurate to date. It is extremely difficult to gauge the actual level of shark fishing globally as many sharks are killed at sea and their bodies discarded without being included in official reports.

Oceanic whitetip shark

The oceanic whitetip shark is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and its fins are highly prized in international trade

Unsustainable exploitation

Commercial shark fishing is driven mainly by high demand for shark fin soup which is considered to be a delicacy in Asia. Sharks are often ‘finned’, which means their fins are removed, and the dead carcasses discarded at sea. However, they are also killed for sale of their meat, liver oil, cartilage and other body parts.

Although a ban on shark finning is in place in the European Union, Canada and the USA, it has not had the desired effect in terms of protecting vulnerable shark species. Fisheries have responded to the ban by no longer finning sharks at sea, instead keeping the carcasses, other parts of which can also be sold. The number of sharks killed has barely changed, the root cause of the problem has yet to be solved, and finning is still widely unregulated in many parts of the world.

The current rates of exploitation are vastly unsustainable and a number of vulnerable shark species are in decline. Sharks are slow to grow and reproduce; Boris Worm, one of the report’s authors from Dalhousie University in Halifax, says, “Biologically, sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species in our lifetime.”

Severed shark fins on boat deck

Dead sharks are often discarded back into the sea once their fins have been removed

Calls for increased protection

Previous attempts to increase the protection of some species of shark have failed, but scientists are hopeful that this time increased trade controls will be introduced for species such as porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks. Proposals at this year’s CITES meeting suggest the listing of five shark species on Appendix II of the Convention, including three species of hammerhead shark, which would mean that international trade in these species should be carefully regulated.

Elizabeth Wilson, Manager of conservation charity Pew Environment says, “A simple vote ‘yes’ to support their listing could turn things around for some of the world’s most threatened shark species. Countries should seize this opportunity to protect these top predators from extinction.

Scalloped hammerhead shark

Proposals suggest increased trade restrictions on five shark species, three of which are hammerheads

The number of sharks caught between 2000 and 2010 has not changed significantly, and as a result there are fears that some shark populations will crash as commercial fisheries continue to meet demands. Trade in manta ray species is also increasing, which has led to a decline in the numbers being recorded and is also having an effect on the tourism industry. Divers pay large sums of money to view manta rays in the wild, and their decline could have massive impacts on the tourist industry in places such as Mozambique, where there has already been an 86% decline in manta rays.

Reef manta ray

Trade has increased in manta ray species, causing population decline

We want to see better protection for sharks and will be pushing for this strongly at CITES next week. I am keen to see trade controls introduced for vulnerable and endangered species like porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks and manta rays,” says the UK environment minister, Richard Benyon.


 Read more on this story at BBC – Shark kills number 100 million annually, research says, and The Guardian – 100 million sharks killed each year, say scientists


View photos and videos of porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks on ARKive.


Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author