Despite widespread regulatory changes implemented to protect sharks, a recent study suggests that the rate of global shark fishing mortality has increased in recent years.
The study, published in the journal Science, found that the total number of sharks killed from fishing increased from at least 76 to 80 million between 2012 and 2019 — and at least 25 million of them were considered threatened species.
“We were really surprised by the findings that fishing mortality did not decline. If anything, that’s slightly increased in the overall study period,” Boris Worm, a biology professor at Dalhousie University who led the study, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Friday.
“We were very happy that we did this study because there was this false sense of security.”
Sharks under threat
Worm said the team of international researchers was interested in finding out the scope of human-caused shark deaths, given alarming estimates from experts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature that more than one in three sharks are threatened with extinction.
They were especially curious to know why the number of shark deaths seems to be going up after numerous regulations were introduced in the last few decades that aimed to improve fishing practices and prevent shark finning to reduce the mortality of sharks around the world.
Finning, Worm explained, is the “destructive” practice of cutting off the fins of sharks and then throwing sharks back into the sea. These fins are typically used in a popular dish called shark fin soup, which is a symbol of status in some Asian countries and can cost upwards of $100 per serving.
Canada banned the practice of finning in 1994 and banned the import and exports of shark fins in 2019.
“So we were simply interested in seeing … what has worked to build on that to safeguard sharks in a more effective manner,” Worm said.
The researchers studied trends in shark mortality across 150 fishing countries, territories and the high seas. They also conducted interviews with fishery experts from around the world.
Overall, they found that finning bans had little impact, but regional shark fishing or retention bans had some success in reducing deaths.
As well, they found that finning bans may have even increased shark catches, possibly by incentivizing the full use of sharks for shark meat, shark oil in cosmetics and other products.
What else can be done to protect sharks?
Worm said these findings present a “reset” in shark conservation efforts, helping experts to pinpoint where improvements could be made to protect sharks.
“We went for the most destructive, the most egregious practices first (like finning), outlined those, but now I think we need to address mortality more comprehensively,” he said.
Worm suggested three kinds of fishery regulations that could boost conservation efforts. First, he said there need to be “strict regulations” around how many sharks can be caught each year sustainably, similar to rules international fisheries must currently follow around tuna fishing.
Creating more sanctuaries or protected zones for sharks and other species would also help, Worm said, noting there are already some countries like the Bahamas and Maldives that have closed off areas for sharks where they are safe from commercial fishing operations.
He further recommended reconsidering where gill nets and trawls should be allowed to be used since they tend to have a large bycatch of sharks, meaning sharks are unintentionally caught while fishing for other species, ultimately leading to their deaths.
“So basically, we have to address how much we fish, where we fish and how we fish,” Worm explained.
Through awareness, individuals can also help protect sharks.
Worm said people can avoid cosmetic products that have shark oil in them or seafood products containing shark meat, which are found in some countries in Central America, where shark meat is often consumed without being mentioned in seafood labelling.
As well, he said people can avoid buying shark teeth or necklaces consisting of shark teeth as souvenirs.
“We can all contribute in a small way to solving this big problem,” Worm added.
“To lose sharks now, for one, would be immoral and sad and terrible, but also it could really destabilize ecosystems that are already struggling with the effects of, say, pollution and climate change.”