06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

State of Emergency for Sharks: Who Will Heed the SOS call?

Last month, sharks were delivered a devastating blow at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar. Shark advocates had high hopes going into the two-week meeting as up for discussion were proposals to regulate the trade in porbeagle, spiny dogfish, oceanic whitetip and scalloped hammerhead sharks. Yet despite the compelling scientific evidence that these extremely vulnerable species cannot tolerate further exploitation, all of the proposals failed. The trade in shark parts is largely unregulated and is driving the decline of many species.

The decimation of these highly migratory species is very much a global problem, and may soon lead to extinctions but many nations are reluctant to regulate their fisheries, fearing economic impact. Particularly vulnerable are those sharks caught in the high seas, where illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is rampant.

Sharks have ruled the oceans for more than 400 million years. The disappearance of these ancient animals is compromising the rest of the food web and threatening the overall health of the oceans. As top predators, their slow growth, low reproductive rate and late maturity have never before been a limiting factor in their survival, until now. Many shark species are being overfished at rates and with methods that are highly unsustainable and as a result are now facing extinction.

Shark finning, in which fishermen cut off the fins of a shark and discard the living body at sea, and industrial fishing methods yielding high levels of bycatch, are largely to blame for the decline. The demand for their fins for use in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup is a real catalyst: An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year for this soup that is seen as a status symbol, similar to caviar.

Shark fin soup was once a dish consumed only by the upper class in China but due to the increasing wealth, is now commonly served at banquets and weddings to show respect to guests and to exhibit wealth and generosity. The popularity of this expensive soup has also spread throughout the rest of the world. Unfortunately, many don't realize or don't care about the hefty toll the demand for shark fins is taking on shark populations and our oceans. Even some connoisseurs of the dish do not realize that shark fins (known as "fish wing" in Chinese) are the actual fins of a shark or the cruel methods used to obtain them. In the U.S., many restaurant patrons are unaware that shark fin soup is served here, even though restaurants do advertise the soup on their menus. The Animal Welfare Institute has reached out to these restaurants and requested that they stop selling the dish, but what is needed to stop the selling of shark fin soup outright in the U.S. is a public outcry in support of sharks. Restaurant owners respond to their customers. "Hot spots" for the soup are San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, but the soup is found throughout the U.S. The list of identified restaurants can be found at here. Establishments serving the dish need to hear from shark advocates through letters, calls, blogs, rallies....

The support of shark advocates is also needed to encourage the passage of the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 (S. 850), which passed the House of Representatives last March and was introduced by Senator John Kerry in April 2009. S 850 would close current loopholes in the U.S. shark finning ban, make it illegal to remove the fins of a shark at sea, and promote shark conservation abroad.

There is a global misconception that the oceans are teeming with sharks. Due to poorly regulated shark fisheries and the prevalence of shark bycatch, the worldwide population of each species of shark is unknown; however, the existing data shows that some shark populations have declined by as much as 99 percent. Another misconception is that sharks are man-eating reflex machines. In many ecosystems, sharks are top predators but this does not mean they will try to devour anything in their vicinity. They are highly specialized predators with very sophisticated senses. In 2009, there were only 61 shark attacks worldwide, resulting in five fatalities, which is minuscule relative to the many millions of people who use the oceans every year and the many millions of sharks that humans kill. We are clearly a threat to sharks, not the other way around. But through action, we can be champions to protect these iconic and much misunderstood species.

Serda Ozbenian
Wildlife Research Associate, Animal Welfare Institute
Washington, D.C.