Wildlife Week: Is There Still Hope for Sharks?

Andy Dehart is the Director of Fishes and Aquatic Invertebrates at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. An advisor to the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, Dehart has been studying and working with sharks for more than 20 years. NWF is thrilled to have the National Aquarium as our Maryland Affiliate.

What do the following have in common: driving to the beach, dogs, lightning, pigs, and falling coconuts? All of these kill more people per year than sharks. Each year there are less than 100 unprovoked shark bites on humans worldwide, with an average of 4.3 fatalities each year. This has been decreasing over the years despite continued population growth and beach attendance. Clearly, we have very little to fear from sharks.

Sharks however cannot say the same about their risk from mankind. Every day, roughly 200,000 sharks are killed through targeted fisheries and as bycatch. Many sharks are slow to mature and have very few young compared to other fish. Some species, such as the sandbar shark, can take between to 10-14 years to mature and only have 6-10 young every other year after a 10-11 month gestation. To top it off, many of the habitats these sharks are using as nursery areas are becoming overdeveloped, leading to habitat loss and polluted waters.

So why the high pressure on sharks? Well, their fins are extremely valuable and are harvested for a delicacy known as shark fin soup. Because their fins are so much more valuable than their meat, fisherman have been known to cut off their fins and dump their still living bodies overboard to suffocate or starve, in a process known as “finning.”

A White Tip Reef Shark from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Photo courtesy NOAA.
Sharks are one of the apex predators of the marine ecosystem. They help keep other populations of animals in check. As an example, when shark populations decrease the stingrays that they feed on increase in numbers. When the stingray population gets out of check they eat too many clams, oysters and scallops. Sharks are critical to maintaining the balance of the oceans.

Luckily there is still time to save sharks, but they will need our help. Consider symbolically adopting a shark and support efforts to conserve and protect wildlife. You can also learn more about sharks biology and behavior in NWF’s Wildlife Library.

Learn more about how you can protect EXTRA-ordinary species like sharks during this year’s National Wildlife Week, March 19-25.