It all began with “Jaws” the book, followed by “Jaws” the movie. Popular media joined in the feeding frenzy, mining accounts of shark attacks on humans to attract audiences. Sharks became a fascinating bogeyman--invincible forces to be feared.
A few decades later, we know that the chance of getting killed by a shark is far less than dying from a bee sting or a lightning strike. What’s more, we’re learning that sharks help us and the ocean in ways that we never knew. Our new view of sharks is driving worldwide efforts to conserve them.
The government of the People’s Republic of China recently joined the
groundswell of support for shark conservation.
On July 5 of this year, they announced a ban at official banquets on
shark fin soup, a traditional dish that the Chinese consider a delicacy and
This year, a growing number of high-end hotels that
do business in China have removed shark fin dishes from their menus, including
Peninsula hotels, Shangri-la hotels, and the Regal group.
Largely because of its culinary popularity in China
and other countries with a Chinese population, sharks are being fished at an
unsustainable rate around the world. A
total of 14 species are listed as endangered and ten listed as critically
endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List,
including the smooth hammerhead, the scalloped hammerhead, and the thresher
shark. Shark populations are estimated
to be down by 90%, with an estimated 38 million killed each year.
Photo Credit: © Burt Jones & Maurice Shimlock
But the economics underlying this dramatic decline have begun to
shift. Up until recently, shark products
brought very high prices. For example, in
2008 officials stopped a Namibian fishing vessel that had a haul of 43 tons of
sharks, four tons of shark fin, 1.8 tons of shark tail, 11.3 tons of shark
liver and 20 tons of shark oil. The
total value of the catch was estimated to be $4.2 million US dollars—a large
amount in a country where per capita GDP was only $4,820 in the same year—and a
strong incentive for continued fishing.
Now, increasingly, studies are showing sharks are worth far more alive
A 2006 Australian government study found that 25%
of the spending by visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is directly
attributable to the opportunity to see sharks. And a study from James Cook
University, also in Australia, found that a gray reef shark in the Maldives was
worth U.S. $3,300 a year in tourism, as opposed to U.S.$32 dollars when sold by
In Palau, an individual reef shark was estimated to
have a lifetime value of U.S.$1.9 million to the tourism industry compared with
a market value of U.S.$108 if caught and killed.
The Ocean Health Index tracks the many benefits
sharks provide. As tourist attractions,
sharks bring up countries’ scores in Tourism and Recreation, as well as some
components in Jobs and Livelihoods. They
also contribute to Food Provision and to Natural Products, through the
medicinal use of their oil.
Perhaps most importantly, sharks enhance Biodiversity, which underlies almost all of the
ocean’s many benefits. The 360 known
species of sharks contribute to ocean diversity by their very existence, and
also encourage diversity throughout their ecosystems. Top predators like reef sharks, bull sharks,
and great white sharks eat mid-level predators such as skates and rays. This keeps populations of such species in
check, and allows other species to flourish.
The valuable role sharks play can be
seen even more clearly in their absence.
To date, eleven species of sharks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean have
declined, allowing their prey to increase.
One of them, the cownose ray, has fed so abundantly on clams, oysters,
scallops and other shellfish, that North Carolina closed its century-old bay
scallop fishery in 2004.
Photo Credit: © Keith A. Ellenbogen
By integrating the many different benefits that a healthy ocean can
provide, the Ocean Health Index encourages us to consider the “value” of
habitats and species, such as sharks, comprehensively—from commercial and
culinary to the less visible but vital benefits and ecosystem services that
they provide. Policy makers can use this
perspective to evaluate decisions economically, ecologically and socially, as
they examine impacts and trade-offs among the many goals they have for their
country’s ocean use.
Photo Credit: © Keith A. Ellenbogen