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August 13, 2014

Acting Like Hammer Heads When It Comes to Sharks

This week, Shark Week returned to Discovery Channel as it has every summer since 1988. Shark Week’s programs tend to portray the shark as aggressive predators, mainly to titillate viewers – though not nearly as sensationally as the 1970s movie Jaws, which did deep and lasting damage to the image of sharks.

Tiger Shark
Sharks have roamed the oceans for 400 million years and survived multiple mass extinctions, but they face their greatest threat ever today, from humans. Photo: Vanessa Mignon

I’ve been pleased though at the rehabilitation of this image in recent years. More people than ever are not only fascinated by sharks, but recognize their critical role as apex predators in marine ecosystems. And an emerging consciousness about sharks cannot happen soon enough, given that dozens of shark species are threatened with extinction. According to best-guess estimates, as many as 100 million sharks are killed each year to supply the global market for shark products, including 73 million for their fins alone.

Shark fins are considered a delicacy in Asia where they are used mostly in shark fin soup to showcase one’s wealth and honor one’s guests. A bowl of shark fin soup can run as high as $100. This leads to unscrupulous fishermen engaging in shark finning – where fins are sliced off a shark, often while the animal is still alive, and the mutilated, bleeding body is thrown overboard.      

The United States is the largest market for shark fins outside Asia. The HSUS and Humane Society International have been engaged in a sustained battle here to shut down this cruel and ecologically unsustainable trade. Last month, Massachusetts became the ninth and the latest state to prohibit the sale and trade of shark fins. It joins eight other major shark fin trading states that have already enacted similar laws, including California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Washington, and the three Pacific territories. Next year, The HSUS will press forward similar legislation in Texas and other states. 

The world’s largest market for shark fins is China, and for the past few years HSI has been collaborating with a number of animal welfare organizations there on a range of public education and policy advocacy campaigns to reduce shark fin consumption. Our joint initiative with The Jane Goodall Institute China and other groups has reached more than 50 million people in 27 cities across China. Efforts by HSI and other conservation groups have contributed to the Chinese government’s issuance of guidelines prohibiting the serving of shark fins at official functions.

We are already seeing the positive effects of this work. Earlier this month, the conservation group WildAid found that prices and sales of shark fins in China are falling by 50 to 70 percent, because of declining demand. This is encouraging news, but we still have a long way to go before this cruel practice is ended forever.

Sharks have roamed the oceans for more than 400 million years, surviving multiple mass extinctions through the long periods of pre-history. But they face their greatest threat ever today, with the onslaught of commercial slaughter at the hands of man, and the jury is still out on whether they can survive it. One fourth of the world’s shark species are facing the threat of extinction and many shark populations have experienced a drastic decline, making the global campaign to save sharks a race against time. Whether or not you watch Shark Week this week, join me in advocating for the place of these creatures in our world’s oceans and help put an exclamation point on the end of the era of demonizing and mass-slaughtering sharks.

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