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"We love to hate them"
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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 03:03 GMT 04:03 UK
Soup threatens sharks' survival
finned shark below surface
A finned shark swims off to try to survive (Photo: Kees da Waal)
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water . . . comes news that you may not find many sharks there when you do.

Hunting is pushing the shark populations to the limit
Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws, which terrified a generation, says sharks are being hunted to the limits of their endurance.

He has joined an international campaign group, WildAid, to press for an end to the practice of removing sharks' fins for soup.

In the quarter century since Jaws' publication, Mr Benchley says, sharks have experienced "an unprecedented and uncontrolled attack".

Left without fins

WildAid wants an immediate halt to finning, done to provide the raw material for shark's fin soup, which can cost US $100 in some Asian restaurants.

After the fins have been removed the shark is thrown back into the sea, where it usually drowns or bleeds to death.

man cutting off shark's fin
The soup trade needs fins
Peter Benchley said: "There is complete indifference to the crisis facing these spectacular animals, and this highly wasteful practice of finning must be stopped.

"I have swum with sharks and also seen graveyards of finned sharks littering the bottom of the sea, an appalling sight.

"There are too many people, with too much modern equipment, going after too few fish. If we continue to devastate shark populations as we are now, it is very likely that they simply will not survive."

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated in 1996 that commercial fishing was landing about 760,000 tons of sharks annually - about 70 million fish.

Protection demanded

But WildAid says most sharks are believed to be caught accidentally (as "by-catch") when other species are the target, so it thinks the actual catch is likely to be far higher.

It says more than 100 million sharks and related species are killed in fisheries annually, a figure it describes as "totally unsustainable".

Apart from an end to finning, WildAid wants a range of other protection measures:

  • concerted efforts by governments to reduce demand for fins and other shark products
  • a global moratorium on trade in any products from the great white shark and basking shark, both found in European waters, and the whale shark
  • a reduction to sustainable levels of direct catches of sharks, and a substantial reduction in by-catches
  • greatly increased research into shark populations and their exploitation.
WildAid says basking sharks have declined by between 50 and 80% in UK waters over the last 20 years, usually being discarded as a worthless by-catch.

It describes sharks as top ocean predators, whose presence helps to determine the complex relationships between marine species.

sharks on dockside
The morning's catch
It says there is clear evidence that some fish stocks have collapsed because of a reduction in shark numbers.

In Tasmania, for example, lobsters became commercially extinct when their main predator, the octopus, proliferated after the destruction of the local sharks.

The earliest shark species is believed to have emerged about 408 million years ago. Peter Benchley said: "Some shark species have been reduced by about 90%.

"We must not allow just one generation of humanity to needlessly eradicate 400 million years of evolution."

And for those still transfixed by memories of Jaws, WildAid has some reassurance: while we kill more than 100 million sharks annually, it says, the sharks themselves kill 12 people in an average year.

"The odds of being killed by a shark are far exceeded by the chance of being killed by lightning, bee stings, or in a plane crash."

All other images courtesy of WildAid

whale shark under water
Whale shark: Sharks are far older than the dinosaurs

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See also:

19 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Further shark controls rejected
16 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Olympians on shark alert
15 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Sharks used to deter immigrants
25 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Better news for basking sharks
19 Jan 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Swimming With Sharks
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