Filmmaker Rob Stewart casually swims with a reef shark.

There is no denying our impact on the oceans over the last century has been greater than all previous centuries combined. We are quickly changing the oceans’ chemistry, temperature and biodiversity while at the same time, only just beginning to understand the implications. We know so little really; we are still learning about the oceans’ important role in our climate, atmosphere, and planet. We are still exploring their depths, and discovering their inhabitants. While we slowly build our knowledge base, human-driven phenomenons such as pollution, habitat destruction, global warming, and overfishing are ravaging our seas – and all that dwell within.

The short end of every stick

Sharks sit at the forefront of this lethal combination of catastrophes, vulnerable to all. Sharks are being fished at the rate of up to 150 to 250 million sharks per year. No one knows for sure because much of this fishing is being done illegally – far from shore and certainly far from society’s eyes and collective knowledge.

What scientists do know is regional populations of large sharks have all but disappeared in places like the North Atlantic where their numbers are down by 95 per  cent. Sharks are still being hunted at such a rate that if current trends continue, we very well could be witnessing the extinction of some species during our lifetimes. A recent study from the University of Hong Kong indicates over-exploitation is “threatening almost 60 per cent of shark species, the highest proportion among all vertebrate groups.”

Vulnerable to overfishing

Sharks simply cannot sustain the fishing pressure that some other bony fish can. This is because sharks reproduce far more slowly. Other types of fish tend to reach sexual maturity quickly - often within a year - and lay millions of eggs each year. In contrast, sharks reach sexual maturity after 10 or more years – some of them as old as 40 - and then produce very few offspring. This makes it even harder for sharks to naturally recover from such relentless overfishing.

Pollution and poisons

Sharks are also struggling with the contamination of their environment. Not only have sharks absorbed the highly toxic methyl-mercury which compromises, amongst other things, their ability to reproduce successfully, now scientists are also finding other strange neuro-toxins (possibly linked to brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) in their flesh. Toxic chemicals, which enter the oceans by dumping or run-off, enter the food chain and become increasingly concentrated as they make their way up the food chain.

Even the tons and tons of plastics in our ocean now forming two “islands” twice the size of Texas in the Pacific and Indian oceans – are decomposing to the point that the polymer particles, which will take hundreds if not thousands of years to dissipate, are consumed by ocean animals. Some seawater contains 7 times more plastic than zooplankton, and this plastic poison also enters the food chain. All of these chemicals are literally poisoning the sharks – and anyone who eats them.

Losing their habitats

As if not threatened enough, the struggling sharks are also battling with the destruction of habitat. Many sharks and rays rely upon estuaries as nurseries for their young. Sadly, estuaries around the world are disappearing. Not only are the fragile ecosystems more susceptible to pollution and overfishing, they are often considered prime real estate. Many estuaries have fallen victim – either directly or indirectly – to the topographical changes forced by urban development.

Hunted into extinction

In addition to the factors challenging other marine creatures, sharks face an even more urgent threat: the demand for their fins is skyrocketing. Indeed a single whale shark fin can sell for upwards of US $50,000 – as we learned in the movie, Sharkwater. As the demand for shark fin far outweighs supply, no sharks are safe from desperate fisherman. Even sharks living in protected waters are under attack. In the last 50 years, the slaughter of sharks has risen by 400 per cent, and in the next decade that 20 species of sharks are anticipated to become extinct.  Just last week eight tons of illegal shark fins worth US $6.2 million en route to China and Hong Kong were confiscated in India.

The number of people eating shark fin soup has risen from a few million in the 1980s to more than 300 million today. For sure, the movements inspired by Sharkwater – including the FinFree campaign – has had an effect. Young consumers are turning away from shark fin in China and Hong Kong. However, new markets are emerging – and a report out of Hong Kong last week from Wild Aid finds globally, the demand for shark fin soup is not declining. So while the supply is plummeting, the demand for shark fin soup is at an all time high, putting our planet’s sharks, and overall health, at risk.

Not just about the soup

Many assume that because they don’t eat shark fin soup, they can’t possibly be contributing to the demise of sharks. Sadly, while shark fin soup does account for a considerable amount of shark consumption, there are many other culprits. It is estimated that of the 150 million sharks killed a year – nearly half are being killed for other shark products. Entire industries have been created that are geared towards developing new uses for this amazing super predator.  Rob Stewart uncovers this first-hand in the upcoming movie, Sharkwater Extinction.

Shark consumption isn’t just something that can be blamed on a single culture or country. And, it isn’t just about the sharks. Rays (close family members of the sharks) fall victim as well. Most likely, the health food store, pet store, beauty supply, grocery store and/or local restaurant in your town are selling shark or ray products right under your nose. Certain cosmetics, pet foods, vitamins, sun screens, fertilizer, lotions, vaccines, leather products and even lipsticks – to name a few – are all known to contain them. You could even be consuming shark without knowing it – in English alone there are 18 different names for shark meat (that don’t contain the word shark.) Even surimi (imitation crab) is often known to contain shark.

Driven by Greed

The incredibly lucrative market for shark products is, more than any other factor, driving the slaughter of sharks. This extinction trade, full of greed and corruption, is often compared to the illegal drug and weapons trades, as each of these is rife with murder, mafia, and multi-million dollar deals. They are tightly linked, as the same distribution infrastructure and criminals are involved in all three. Fishermen, frantic to feed their families, will stop at nothing to bring home boatloads of sharks and are being driven to extremes, though it is only a handful of individuals (wholesale traders and middlemen) who are reaping the benefits – at an incredible cost to the rest of us.

As consumers, often unknowingly, we are at the heart of the issue. Without demand for products containing shark, there would be nothing fueling the hunt.  The good news is, whether we live in China or the middle of Ontario, we all hold in our hands the power to protect sharks, the oceans and our intertwined futures. The informed and easy consumer choices we make on a daily basis can turn the tide and save a species that desperately needs our help.

This is the second of a four part series leading up to the release of Rob Stewart's final gift to us: Sharkwater Extinction, on October 19. Take a look at part one here. Julie Andersen, who worked with Rob on the film is taking A\J readers on a journey into deeper understanding of the mysterious, powerful and dare we say... loveable? species.

Julie Andersen is a passionate shark advocate and diver, a decade-long Team Sharkwater member, and co-founder of Shark Angels, Shark Savers, United Conservationists and Fin Free – all non-profits dedicated to the protection of animals she loves - @juliesharkangel

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