Did you know that the populations of all shark species throughout the Mediterranean Sea have declined by 97 percent in the last 200 years? Did you know that you're more likely to be killed by a vending machine than by a shark? Did you know that the U.S. fishing industry exports more than half a million pounds (226,796 kilograms) of shark fins to Hong Kong alone each year?
We know all of this due to the efforts of shark conservation groups operating today. By funding research that yields new data on sharks, we've come to understand the precariousness of their survival. By educating the public, conservationists have improved the shark's dangerous reputation and revealed the dangers that humans pose to them.
While all efforts to protect sharks are important to their survival, some actions (and the organizations behind them) are having an even greater impact. Here are 10 conservation efforts designed to save sharks today.
10: Reporting the Danger Sharks Face in Scholarly Journals
In 2008, researcher Francesco Feretti and his colleagues published a startling and important survey of shark population declines in the Mediterranean Sea. Feretti and his co-authors pored over all available data on Mediterranean shark populations over the past two centuries. The group looked at the log books of area fishermen from as far back as 1827, evaluated data from yacht clubs that housed sport fishing records and even read the sales records from a fish market in the Maltese city of Valetta.
By cobbling together all of the data they could find on sharks that were directly hunted, inadvertently caught with other fish or even just sighted, the group compiled a bleak picture of the Mediterranean shark population. They found that all shark species decreased in numbers by an average of 97 percent over the past 150 to 200 years.
Studies like Feretti's help people understand the alarming situation that sharks face worldwide. Specifically, the 2008 project provided a research model for other studies around the globe to follow.
9: Lobbying Policymakers to Protect Sharks
Researchers compile and publish reports that illustrate the decline of shark species worldwide; the media help to raise awareness by covering the findings. That said, those reports may do the most good in the hands of a good lobbyist.
Groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts fund and employ lobbyists who persuade lawmakers to support legislation that create sanctions against shark fishing, provide enforcement of protective laws and offer incentives to protect sharks.
One sterling example of the work of lobbying groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts is the U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2009. This law would make removing a shark's fin - even one from a dead shark — or having a shark fin aboard a vessel illegal. Finning is the process of removing the fin and returning the usually still-alive shark back to the water to die. When finned, the shark is returned to the water alive to either bleed to death or die of starvation because it's lost much of its navigational sense.
The measures found in the bill would go a long way toward protecting sharks; finning is a major reason why sharks are hunted.
8: Recording Shark Attacks
Keeping files on shark attacks to aid shark conservation efforts may seem counterintuitive, but recording hard data on the number and circumstances of shark attacks around the world seems to have done just that. The University of Florida's Museum of Natural History (FMNH) houses and helps to compile the Shark Attack Files. The data make it clear that humans pose a far bigger danger to sharks than they do to us.
For example, the Shark Attack Files show that in the 10 years between 1999 and 2009, there were 51 fatal shark attacks throughout the entire world. Compare this to the estimated 79 million sharks that are killed each year by humans, and you start to get an idea of who should be fearful of whom.
The FMNH also keeps statistics that compare the relative risk of shark attacks. Did you know that you're about 10,000 times likelier to be injured by a ladder than by a shark? By maintaining real numbers on shark attacks, the public can truly understand that sharks are both worthy and in desperate need of our help to save them.
7: Charting the Decline of the Sawfish (and Other Sharks)
Tracking the decline of one shark species can illuminate the plight all sharks face. Groups like the Ocean Conservancy, for example, helped to protect the Atlantic smalltooth sawfish from extinction. Because of its odd form, the sawfish shark has long been a particularly popular sport fish; anglers like to mount it. It's also valued by humans for its meat and its liver oil, which is used as a traditional remedy.
The sawtooth's habitat around U.S. coastal waters ranged from Texas all the way to New York as recently as 1900. Because of overfishing, habitat destruction and a lack of government protection, however, the population declined dramatically throughout the last half of the 20th century until the sharks only lived off the Florida coast. Thanks to the investigation into the decline of the sawfish (as well as a petition filed by the Ocean Conservancy) the Atlantic smalltooth sawfish was listed as an endangered species in 2003 and now enjoys federal protection in the United States.
6: Going Underwater for Sharks
Some shark conservationists do their best work on dry land. Others literally like to get their feet wet.
Conservation groups on the high seas have a lot of work to do. Poachers in protected areas like the Galapagos Islands take illegal hauls and must be apprehended. Even legal fishing operations that fish for species like tuna can be dangerous for sharks. Purse seine nets, for example, are long walls of netting that hang up to 300 meters (984 feet) underwater and are attached to floats on the surface. These nets are drawn together at the bottom, trapping everything within them. When fishermen come to haul the nets up, they take everything — sharks included.
This process is called bycatching; it's an unfortunate — but legal — byproduct of fishing. However, some conservationists will go underwater to free trapped sharks from opened nets that have yet to be hauled.
By harassing illegal fishermen and overseeing legal operations, shark conservationists in the water try to create breathing room for endangered sharks.
5: Battling Shark Fin Soup on Land
Shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in Asia, Australia and Hawaii, is responsible for the removal of millions of kilograms of shark fins annually. While numerous conservation efforts focus on cutting off supplies of the main ingredient in shark fin soup, at least one trains its eye on the demand side.
For the past few years, residents of China — one of the biggest consumers of the dish — have been treated to a grassroots public service campaign that alerts them to the environmental havoc that bowl of soup can cause. Basketball star Yao Ming serves as a mouthpiece for the campaign, which aims to rid the Chinese public of its affection for shark fin soup through bus stop ads, billboards and television spots.
A survey in 2008 showed the push has been successful. Nineteen percent of the residents of Beijing remembered the campaign, and 82 percent of those who recalled it said they would stop eating the soup as a result.
4: Exposing Shark Fishing Nations
Researchers attribute the sharp increase in demand for shark fin soup largely to the rise of the middle class in China over the past decade or so. With more people making more money from China's economic boom, more Chinese can afford a dish that costs up to $100 a bowl. While shark fin soup is a delicacy in China and a handful of other areas, many countries have fishing fleets that feed that demand.
Some conservation efforts, like that of Oceana, have focused on quantifying the shark fin trade. A 2010 report published by the group determined estimates for each of the 87 countries that export shark fins to Hong Kong, the world's largest consumer of shark fin soup. Shockingly, some of the largest exporters also have implemented some of the world's best protective measures for sharks.
Spain tops the list by exporting a whopping 2.6 million kilograms (5.7 million pounds) of shark fins in 2008. The United States ranks seventh, exporting an estimated 251,000 kilograms (553,000 pounds) of shark fins each year.
By showing that the same countries that work to conserve sharks also profit from their deaths, conservationists can force the hands of lawmakers in these countries.
3: Studying Whale Sharks in Public Aquariums
Some of the largest aquariums in the world have dedicated much of their research and funding to studying and conserving the world's whale sharks. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List has declared the elusive and little-understood shark species vulnerable. By studying the sharks kept in captivity, and participating in and funding research in the sharks' natural habitat, aquariums in such diverse locations as Georgia, Taiwan and Okinawa hope to protect these sharks by better understanding how humanity affects them.
It's a bit ironic to support animals in the wild by keeping them in captivity. Whale sharks in aquariums, however, are most often captured by fishermen who opted to sell them to aquariums rather than shark meat wholesalers. Sharks displayed in captivity raise awareness by their very situation. At the Georgia Aquarium in the U.S., for example, more than 5 million people who may not have otherwise been exposed to a whale shark have been since the aquarium opened in 2005.
By learning of the dangers humans pose to whale sharks while encountering them face to face, aquarium guests can become informed and concerned activists.
2: Ridding Marinas of Shark Fishing
Vacationing tourists who remove sharks from local fisheries for sport and recreation are considered inhumane by many conservationists. Getting shark meat home when home is another country is virtually impossible, and few tourists are willing to pay for the cost to have a shark mounted and shipped. Instead, a shark caught by a tourist is often used for a commemorative photo and left to rot.
In response, some shark conservationists have created a shark-free marina movement that targets flippant tourists. This tactic hits tourists where they stay by lobbying marinas and facilities attached to resorts to ban dead sharks from their docks and piers. Recreational shark fishermen may think twice before killing a shark for the photo op if they know they can't offload the carcass from their fishing boat. The tactic has appeal in that it still respects the sport of fishing; it simply encourages fishermen to catch and release.
Resorts and marinas in six different countries have banned dead sharks from their facilities as a result of this conservation movement.
1: Converting Economic Zones to Conservation Areas
Every sovereign nation is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a 200-nautical-mile buffer from its coastline or that of its nearest coastal neighbor if the country is landlocked. Most nations in the world use their EEZs for their economic benefit, like removing minerals and fossil fuels, and, most of all, giving their nation's commercial fishing fleets a place to fish.
Some countries are bucking the trend, however, and using their EEZs instead to protect sharks by banning commercial fishing in these areas and turning them into de facto shark sanctuaries. The island nation of Palau has long ardently defended the sharks that inhabit the waters around its 200 islands. In 2009, President Johnson Toribiong announced plans to create a sanctuary out of all of the waters of the nation's EEZ.
Palau banned all commercial shark fishing within its EEZ. Since the islands are so spread out, the buffer around the archipelago nation now provides 230,000 square miles (595,697 square kilometers) of sanctuary to sharks. In 2010, the Maldives followed suit and created a sanctuary out of their EEZ, providing sharks with another 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometers) of protected space.