Sharks have been around for a long time -- we're talking a few hundred million years. They predate humans and even dinosaurs. Sharks have survived everything Mother Nature has thrown at them over that span, so you'd think they'd be around for another couple hundred million years. Sadly, this may not be the case. The reason? Man. Specifically, the overfishing of the species by commercial and recreational fishermen.
Research indicates that about 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans -- roughly 11,000 sharks every hour, around the clock [source: HSUS]. These numbers may even be on the low side, since the estimate is based only on the reported catch numbers. It's likely that many sharks are caught without being reported.
Commercial fishing accounts for a large part of the overall number of sharks caught. Sometimes the shark is the target, but many times it's just a victim of something called bycatch. This is when a commercial boat hauls in other types of fish in addition to the species the fishermen are after. Bycatch is a common result of longline fishing, when workers on the boats spool out hundreds of feet of fishing line with up to 2,000 baited hooks spread along its length. Tuna and mackerel are fished using the longline technique, and the resulting shark bycatch has had a drastic effect on the overall population. The sharks that are caught as bycatch are often killed or injured in the process and usually thrown overboard.
There are other species of fish that are more heavily targeted than sharks, but they don't face the same threat of endangerment. One reason is because sharks typically reproduce only once a year, and they carry just 10 to 40 pups per pregnancy. This sets them apart from many other fish that deposit thousands of eggs at a time. The overfishing combined with the long gestation period and limited amount of young they produce has placed several species of shark on the protected list.
While commercial fishing has put a dent in the shark population, recreational fishing has done its fair share to endanger sharks as well. We'll take a look at the impact of recreational fishing on the next page.
Recreational Shark Fishing
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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More Great Links
- "Blue Shark Population Down But Not Out" Maritime Regions, August 24, 2004. http://www.mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/communications/maritimes/back04e/B-MAR-04-03E.html
- "Critics Target Shark Fishing Tournaments." flmnh.ufl.edu, August 23, 2007. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/InNews/critic2007.html
- Dehart, Andy. "Shark Bites: 10 Facts About Sharks." Discovery Communications. 2008. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/InNews/critic2007.html
- "Shark Tournaments." hsus.org, 2008. http://www.hsus.org/wildlife/issues_facing_wildlife/shark_tournaments/
- "SHARK! Your Biggest Ocean Fear Could Actually Save Your Life." associatedcontent.com, July 31, 2007. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/324414/shark_your_biggest_ocean_fear_could.html
- "The Annotated Plan To Save The Sharks." flmnh.ufl.edu, February 12, 2008. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/InNews/annotated2008.html
- "The decline of traditional shark fishing." Shark Info, 2008. http://www.sharkinfo.ch/SI2_01e/decline.html
- "The End of the Line: global threats to sharks." sharkwater.com, 2008. http://www.sharkwater.com/downloads/pdfs/WildAid_Shark_Report2007.pdf
- "The Shark Attack Guy." flmnh.ufl.edu, May 2, 2005.http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/innews/guy2005.html
- Aull, Elbert. "Groups protest shark-fishing contest." mainetoday.com, 2008. http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com/news/local/4206798.html
- Balzar, John. "Cousteau: It's a shark's life." hsus.org, June 11, 2007. http://www.hsus.org/wildlife/wildlife_news/cousteau_sharks.html
- Eifling, Sam. "Mad for shark fins." epsn.com, April 5, 2007. http://sports.espn.go.com/outdoors/fishing/news/story?id=2815396
- Peterson, Iver. "New Rules Can't Limit Lure of Shark Fishing." The New York Times, July 11, 1993. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE0DB1F3AF932A25754C0A965958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
- Saletan, William. "Attack of the Shark Lobby." slate.com, September 7, 2001. http://www.slate.com/id/114958/
- Viniard, Raf. "Ocean City Shark Tournament yields nearly $140,000 in prize money." Delmarvaoutdoornews.com, 2008. http://www.delmarvaoutdoornews.com/OCSharkTourney%5B1%5D.DON.pdf