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The Death of Sharks
July 29, 2009 - The New York Times

An editorial in The New York Times cites the horrifying fact that humans kill up to 73 million sharks every year. The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and colleagues are the source for that widely-cited statistic, which we first published in October 2006 in a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Ecology Letters. The paper, entitled, "Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets," was the cover story in that issue.

Ours was the first real-data study of sharks harvested for their valuable fins. The Institute estimated that as few as 26 million and as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, three times higher than was reported originally by the United Nations.

Below is the editorial from the Times.

Summer comes and all of the old fears and myths about sharks reappear as we hit the beaches. Shark attacks, thankfully, are very rare. What humans ought to be fearful about is the survival of an essential species.

Humans kill 73 million sharks every year, nearly all for consumption, mainly in shark fin soup. The fins are cut off and the bodies dumped overboard, a barbaric practice known as finning. Commercial fishermen are taking more and more sharks for their meat as well.

Nearly a third of shark species in the open oceans are threatened with extinction. Losing these top predators creates a cascading imbalance. The species whose numbers the sharks once controlled begin to explode; they then wipe out smaller fish, some of which humans depend on for food. Water quality suffers. Healthy oceans require sharks, and without healthy oceans, healthy fisheries are impossible.

Though the appetite for shark fin soup is greatest in Asia, the carnage is global. There are no international limits on the numbers of sharks that may be taken. At a recent meeting in Spain, regional fishing organizations agreed to begin collecting data and considering measures to conserve sharks. That is barely a beginning. What is needed is a global agreement to establish serious catch limits and end finning.

Washington is beginning to get the message. The House has approved a bill that would close several loopholes in a 2000 law banning finning in American waters. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. Passing it would give the United States the credibility to press globally for shark conservation. Shark fin soup is no reason to decimate a species or ruin the oceans.

Read the Ecology Letters paper

See the editorial on The New York Times website

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