Posted Tuesday, June 30, 2009, at 11:09 AM
Sharks have a serious public relations problem. It's understandable-it's hard for people to feel bad for an animal that ate an adorable surfer girl's arm . But sharks are in serious trouble. To paraphrase Alan Moore , people shouldn't be afraid of sharks. Sharks should be afraid of people.
A new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), released last week, found that more than 30 percent of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction . An additional 24 percent of species were classified as Near Threatened. These are not sharks that were lining up to eat you- of the 350 shark species, only 10 are considered dangerous to people. (Seriously, people, the most dangerous part of your visit to the beach is the car ride there! Compare 10 shark deaths per year in the entire world to 40,000 auto deaths each year in the U.S. alone.) But the declining species are sharks that are strange and beautiful and important to the ocean's health.
Sharks are slow to grow and reproduce, and their decline is primarily due to rampant and wasteful overfishing. The most well-known practice is shark finning , where the valuable fins are removed and the rest of the animal thrown back to rot. Though shark finning is illegal in many locations, poaching is rampant, particularly in isolated, poor areas such as the Galapagos. The lesser-known cause of sharks' decline is as bycatch in other fisheries . Millions of sharks are unintentionally killed every year in the tuna and swordfish fisheries, alongside turtle and seabirds and other unwanted fish.
People are indoctrinated into fearing sharks in childhood. Even the quasi-friendly-sharks in Finding Nemo aren't nice sharks after all. But like all top predators, sharks are critical to maintaining the stability and health of their ecosystems. Without sharks, Nemo and all his buddies would be homeless , their coral reef demolished through a series of food chain breakdowns. To help sharks, consider buying fish that are caught with minimal bycatch. And never, never let your children see Jaws .
Photograph of a Caribbean reef shark by Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images.