Where Have All the Sharks Gone?

Shark populations across the world are in decline, and we need those trends to reverse.

Published July 29, 2019

While people certainly owe these apex predators space and respect, we are in fact living in a period of steep shark decline.

Blacktip reef shark

Sharks can be elusive, and the ocean is vast. Most population loss estimates are determined by reviewing bycatch and harvest records over time. Bycatch is the term used to describe animals that are coincidentally caught in other fishing operations.

In the northwest Atlantic, it is estimated that all shark species except the mako have experienced declines of more than 50% over the past eight to 15 years alone. Perhaps most shocking, the hammerhead population has declined by 89% since 1986.

Even the most remote corners of the world are affected by this precipitous decline. In the Chagos Archipelago, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, populations are estimated to be 93% below predicted baseline levels.

These drops in population are directly correlated to large-scale fishing (particularly driven by the Chinese market for shark fin soup) and habitat loss (driven by human activity and climate change).

Sharks may seem scary to some, but they are a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. By eating sick and weak fish, they help ensure healthy fish populations and halt disease. They also ensure that fish populations stay a manageable size and don’t damage their surrounding ecology by overfeeding.

Without sharks, many cultures lose an important touchstone. In traditional Hawaiian belief, some species of shark are believed to be reincarnated ancestors, called aumakua. They are considered protectors of humans and sacred guardians of the sea, ensuring balance. When ancient Hawaiians formed this belief, they might not have realized the scope of the world sharks inhabited, but they were certainly in the know about the role of sharks! Sharks play a key part in maintaining ecological balance in the ocean, which means a healthier and safer world for all of us.

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