There are around one billion sharks in our oceans, representing 400 to 500 different species. That might sound like a lot, but there used to be a lot more. According to some, “only 10% of the sharks remain on the ocean,” and we’re still hunting them.
While decisions like those made at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in November 2022 promise to “turn the tide for shark conservation,” it could be a case of too little, too late.
How many Sharks are Killed a Year?
A study of “the global catch and mortality of sharks” conducted in 2013 found that approximately 100 million sharks died in 2000 due to “reported and unreported landings, discards, and shark finning.”
The following decade showed minimal improvement, with 97 million sharks dying in 2010, and researchers estimating that anywhere between “63 and 273 million sharks” are being killed every year.
According to the study, “this exceeds the average rebound rate for many shark populations,” especially those that are slow to mature, have long gestation periods, and only give birth to small litters of one or two pups.
How many Sharks are Killed per Hour?
The global population of sharks and rays “has crashed by more than 70% in the past 50 years,” with between 6.4% to 7.9% of all shark species being killed each year.
That equates to around 11,416 sharks dying every hour.
If we want to maintain the stability of our global shark population, we need to reduce that percentage to just 4.9%.
Anything more than that, and we’re likely to see species like the Oceanic whitetip and porbeagle disappear from our oceans for good.
Why are so many Sharks being Killed Every Year?
It’s hard to believe that 100 million sharks are killed each year just to make shark fin soup.
Sure, it’s a delicacy in some parts of the world, but it’s hardly something you’d pick up at the grocery store as part of your weekly shop.
Cartilage, oil, and meat all contribute to that market value, even though finning is believed to kill around 73 million sharks a year alone.
However, not every shark that dies has been targeted, and every year “tens of millions of sharks are caught as bycatch.”
Destructive fishing practices such as trawling and long lining also contribute to the decline of our global shark population.
Other factors that jeopardize the shark’s future include ship strikes, oil and gas drilling operations, climate change, and sport fishing activities.
What’s Killing the Most Sharks?
While overfishing remains the biggest threat to sharks, it’s not the only one.
Bycatch is a critical problem, especially with pelagic longline fisheries in which sharks “often make up more than a quarter of the total catch.”
After overfishing, longline fishing operations pose one of the most serious threats to sharks.
Longline fishing operations use hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks attached to a single line that can be several miles long.
Although these operations mainly target tuna, swordfish, and mackerel, it also attracts opportunistic predators like sharks and dolphins.
Sharks are drawn in by the electrical signals emitted by the fish struggling on each of the longline’s hooks.
As these long lines are left in the water for extended periods, the sharks are often dead by the time the lines are drawn up.
According to a study published in 2007, “more than seven million sharks and skates are killed every year as an unintended consequence of longline fishing off the west coasts of South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.”
Longlining is practiced worldwide, and according to Greenpeace, “approximately 35% of longline catch consists of non-target species, such as threatened oceanic sharks and turtles.”
Although efforts are being made to reduce the bycatch in longline fishing operations, progress is slow.
Just before writing this, a new study revealed that vessels authorized to fish for tuna in the open ocean were “operating major shark fisheries,” landing over seven million blue shakers in 2019 alone.
Trawling is one of the most common methods of commercial fishing and involves towing a funnel-shaped net behind a boat.
Trawl nets are either drawn through the water column or along the sea floor. The species most commonly affected by these operations include blue sharks, silky sharks, and spiny dogfish.
Silky sharks are near threatened with extinction, as are blue sharks, except in the Mediterranean, where the population has decreased so dramatically it’s considered critically endangered.
The spiny dogfish is considered “Vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) due to intense fishing pressure.”
Gill nets are vertical nets held in the water by a series of weights and floats. When a fish swims into the gill net, it can only get its head through the netting.
When it tries to back out of the net, the gills get caught in the mesh, trapping the fish.
When Southern California banned gill nets in 1994, the results proved just how destructive they can be.
Not only did soupfin sharks and leopard sharks suddenly reappear after being absent for years, but the population of white sharks started to rebound.
Gillnets trap and immobilize sharks, many of which have to keep moving to breathe.
Even if they’re only caught in the net for a minute or two, sharks that rely on ram ventilation are unable to breathe and quickly suffocate.
What Action Is Being Taken To Save Our Sharks?
Over the past few months, landmark decisions have been made to control the commercial trade of shark fins.
Every shipment of shark fins will now require a CITES permit or certification, giving them control of over 70% of the global fin trade.
Countries must also ensure the sustainability and legality of shark finning operations before authorizing any exports.
Advances are also being made in the commercial fishing arena, with the development of new technology that could help reduce shark mortality.
A new device, known as the SharkGuard, could reduce the number of sharks “caught incidentally on longline fishing gear.”
When attached to a baited hook, the SharkGuard device “produces a small, pulsing electric field” that sharks can detect through their network of electroreceptors. It’s hoped this will deter them from taking the bait.
Experimental trials suggest the gadget is effective, with the catch of blue sharks dropping from “6 per 1,000 control hooks” to just 0.5.
Efforts are also being made to reduce the number of sharks caught in gill nets. Breakaway panels and prohibitions on large mesh gillnets could allow sharks to free themselves more easily, reducing the number of fatalities.
How many People Die from Sharks a Year?
Many people see sharks as bloodthirsty killers with a taste for human blood, but that’s far from the truth.
Every year, around “75 million U.S. people visit beaches and swim in the ocean,” and yet the International Shark Attack File only records an average of 72 incidents per year globally.
Of those 72 annual attacks, only a handful are fatal, making your chances of being killed by a shark about 1 in 264 million.
On the other hand, a shark has a 1 in 10,000 chance of being killed by humans. Who’s the bloodthirsty killer now?
Although efforts are being made to protect our diminishing shark population, it could be a case of too little, too late.
The global shark population has declined by over 70% since 1970, leaving hundreds of species vulnerable to extinction.
Oceanic shark species are particularly endangered, due to increased fishing pressures, with the oceanic whitetip, the scalloped hammerhead, and the great hammerhead all listed as critically endangered.
Sharks may be frightening to some, but they have a critical role to play in our marine ecosystems and their absence would have a devastating effect on our oceans.
If we want to save our oceans, we need to save our sharks, and that requires coordinated global action.
We need to restrict the shark fin trade and adopt safer fishing practices. If we don’t, many shark species could disappear, leaving devastation in their wake.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.