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How many sharks are killed recreationally each year -- and why?

        Animals | Sharks

Recreational Shark Fishing
Recreational divers stand outside the New South Whales Parliament in protest against the government's refusal to exclude fishing from key habitat areas for the critically endangered grey nurse shark in Sydney, Australia.
Recreational divers stand outside the New South Whales Parliament in protest against the government's refusal to exclude fishing from key habitat areas for the critically endangered grey nurse shark in Sydney, Australia.
David Hancock/Getty Images

Recreational shark fishing wasn't a very popular activity in the United States until 1975, when a little movie called "Jaws" premiered. After "Jaws," big-game fisherman all up and down the East Coast sought to land one of the great whites they saw on the big screen. There was a macho factor involved with hauling in a so-called "man-eater," and many fishermen equated their pastime with keeping the ocean safe for their families. Another reason it gained popularity is that you don't need a boat to fish for sharks. Anyone with a large rod and reel can set up on a dock, bridge, or even on the beach and have a good chance at catching a shark.

While we can't be sure exactly how many sharks are caught and killed by recreational fishermen each year, we have some idea. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimated in 2004 that 12 million sharks, skates and rays were caught in U.S. waters alone. Only about 359,000 of these sharks were killed -- the others were evidently released back into the ocean. Many recreational shark anglers have lobbied for tighter restrictions on commercial operations, fearing that overfishing might lead to the eradication of their hobby. However, research has shown that over a 21-year span, recreational fishermen captured more sharks than commercial fisheries in 15 of those years. In California alone, tiger sharks caught recreationally outnumbered the commercial side 6-to-1 [source: sharkwater.com].

Many sharks are caught recreationally each year in fishing tournaments. One tournament in Massachusetts awards bonus points for mako, porbeagle or thresher sharks larger than 250 pounds. The porbeagle is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature endangered species list (IUCN). During two days in 2005, this same tournament saw more than 2,500 sharks caught. The tournaments mean big money as well. The total prize purse for the Ocean City Shark Tournament in Maryland is $140,000 [source: delmarvaoutdoornews.com].

More and more, shark anglers are moving toward the practice of catch and release, but even then, the large hook is often left buried in the shark's throat, mouth or gut. Sandwich maker Quiznos and the cable sports network ESPN have sponsored a catch-and-release tournament for anglers who wish to preserve the shark but still get the thrill of a big catch. They award double points for the proper and humane removal of the hook.

Unfortunately, catch-and-release tournaments are less widespread than the catch-and-kill varieties. Hundreds of these tournaments are held every year, despite the growing concerns of the shark population and protests from groups like the American Humane Society (AHS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The recreational catch combined with the commercial side has put sharks in serious jeopardy. Experts indicate that one-fifth of all sharks are threatened with extinction at this point, and if the same level of fishing continues, several species face imminent demise. For example, the hammerhead shark population has decreased by 89 percent over the last two decades [source: Dehart­].

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that roughly 800,000 tons of shark are caught and killed every year overall, with 18 different countries hauling in more than 9,000 tons each. Shark meat is eaten; fins are the key ingredient in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Other body parts are used in everything from lubricants, makeup and paint to soap, fertilizer and acne treatments. No one is exactly sure what the extinction of sharks would mean to the world, but we do know that they're an important part of the food chain and the ocean's ecosystem.

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