From: , Oceana, More from this Affiliate
Published July 25, 2008 11:12 AM

New Report Finds Sharks Critical to Maintaining Healthy Oceans

Washington, D.C. -- A new report released by Oceana today concludes that sharks are invaluable to maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks shows that as shark populations decline, the oceans suffer unpredictable and devastating consequences.

Sharks have unfortunately fallen victim to the man-hungry "Jaws" stereotype society has created for them. But as Shark Week nears, Oceana wants the world to know that what we should really fear are oceans without sharks. Sharks now represent the largest group of threatened marine species on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.

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"Humans represent the greatest threat facing sharks today," said Elizabeth Griffin, marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. "Without proper management and increased enforcement, some shark species are likely to go extinct."

Threats

Each year, humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide. Shark finning alone kills 26 to 73 million sharks annually. Because shark carcasses are bulky, take up a lot of space and are less valuable, they are often thrown overboard. In fact, the practice of shark finning is extremely wasteful and only uses between one and five percent of the shark.

Sharks also are incidentally captured as "bycatch," a term used for unintended catch, in commercial fisheries. It is estimated that tens of millions of sharks are caught as bycatch each year, which is nearly half of the total shark catch worldwide. When sharks are caught as bycatch they are often thrown overboard, many of them dead or seriously injured.

Effects

As apex, or top, predators of the sea, many shark species are a necessary component to maintaining a complex ecosystem full of diversity and life. These top predators affect other animals in a cascading effect throughout the entire ocean. Sharks feed on the animals below them in the food web, helping to regulate and maintain the balance of life in the ocean. Sharks also can indirectly control the health of coral reefs and the health of seagrass beds, and ultimately, bottom communities.

In addition to regulating species abundance, distribution and diversity, sharks provide essential food sources for scavengers and remove sick and weak individuals from prey populations. Predators as Prey gives a glimpse of what the oceans might look like without sharks: economically important fisheries shut down; coral reefs shift to algae dominated systems; seagrass beds decline; ecological chain reactions are set in motion; and species diversity and abundance decline with the loss of habitats.

"Sharks are undoubtedly critical to maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems," said Griffin. "Shark populations must be protected and restored to ensure heallthy oceans in the future."

Solutions

Protecting sharks and allowing their populations to recover is critical to restoring the health of our oceans. Oceana's new report describes three steps that are essential to protecting shark populations worldwide:

  • Reduce the number of sharks captured in commercial fisheries through improved shark management, including requiring strict species specific fishing quotas and stock assessments.
  • Truly end shark finning by requiring that all sharks be landed whole with their fins still naturally attached.
  • Reduce the demand for shark products such as shark fin soup.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently took action to better protect sharks by requiring all federally permitted shark fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to land sharks with their fins still naturally attached. The U.S. House of Representatives also took action by passing the "Shark Conservation Act of 2008" earlier this month. This legislation will improve existing laws that were originally intended to prevent shark finning and will allow the U.S. to continue being an international leader in shark conservation. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) recently introduced the same legislation in the Senate. 

"With time running out for this session of Congress, Oceana looks to the Senate for fast action to enact the Shark Conservation Act of 2008 into law," said Beth Lowell, federal policy director at Oceana.

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