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Shark extinction

Naomi Conrad September 27, 2012

Almost a fifth of the world's sharks are endangered. That's prompted many nations to enact protection measures but several Asian countries are lobbying hard for continued shark hunting.

Mitarbeiter eines Fischverarbeitungsbetriebs in Valluhn tragen einen tiefgefrorenen Heringshai in einen Kühlraum (Archivfoto vom 12.11.2001, Illustration zum Thema Heringshai). Für stark gefährdete Haiarten hat der Naturschutzbund (NABU) strengere Schutzmaßnahmen gefordert. Rund einem Drittel der fast 500 Haiarten weltweit drohe das Aus, teilte der NABU am Mittwoch (25.03.2007) in Berlin mit. Die Fische landen als Schillerlocke, Fish and Chips, See-Aal oder Seestör auf den Tischen der Verbraucher. Vor allem die Bestände der Dorn- und Heringshaie nahmen laut NABU in den vergangenen zehn Jahren dramatisch ab. Foto: Jens Büttner (zu dpa 0450 vom 25.04.2007) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Sarah Fowler's first close encounter with sharks was while she was diving in Australia. Suddenly, she found herself surrounded by an enormous school of nurse sharks. She lifted herself onto a rock and watched, mesmerized, as they swam past.

Today, nurse sharks are critically endangered. "There are only maybe a few hundred left in that population. I was incredibly fortunate to see them before that happened," Fowler told DW.

angle shark
The angel shark has lost around 90 percent of its populationImage: Fotolia/macdivers

She works for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which compiles the Red List of Threatened Species. Fowler explained that there are more than a thousand species of sharks inteh world - and all of them are on the list.

Critically endangered

Ralf Sonntag is the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He joined Fowler at a meeting of signatory states of the Conference on Migratory Species held in Bonn this week. He too has serious concerns about the future of the world's sharks.

"Some species are down to ten percent of their original population," he told DW in an interview. Fowler added that migratory sharks are particularly at risk, with more than half of all migratory shark species now listed as endangered. Failure to agree on global protection measures has left migratory sharks vulnerable.

Great White Shark
Films like 'Jaws' portray sharks as dangerous killers, but very few actually pose a threat to human beingsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"You may well have one country that's managing or protecting stocks," Fowler said. "But if the country next door isn't, it makes it very difficult to manage them."

Dangerous waters for sharks

Despite ongoing studies spanning decades, there is surprisingly little information available about sharks. For many species, we still don't know where they breed or where their mirgratory routes take them.

According to Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International, one thing we do know is which waters offer the least protection for sharks. "The Mediterranean is one of the most dangerous places to be a shark," she said, adding that more than 40 percent of sharks in the Mediterranean are endangered. Europe is a major exporter of shark fins to Asia. Then there are those killed as by-catch, getting tangled in fishing nets and drowning.

It is extremely difficult to revive endangered shark populations. Unlike cod fish which can produce thousands of eggs at a time, sharks only give birth to a small number of young. They are similar to humans in that they invest long periods of time raising their young.

Unpopular predator

Raising funds for shark protection poses a serious challenge, the experts gathered in Bonn explained. Getting the public to see that sharks are just vulnerable as cuddly koalas, sweet-faced deers and giggling dolphins isn't easy. Shark attacks are rare, but conjure such fear and anger in human populations that many support culls.

Titel: Finning eines Hais Schlagworte: Hai, Finning, Haifischflossen, Haiflossen, Haifischflossensuppe, Fisch, Flosse Wo wurde das Bild aufgenommen?: Mozambik Bildbeschreibung: Fischer in Mozambik schneidet einem gefangenen Babyhai mit einem Messer die Flossen ab. In welchem Zusammenhang soll das Bild/sollen die Bilder verwendet werden?: Bildergalerie Bildrechte: - Es handelt sich um ein durch einen Verlag, ein Unternehmen oder eine Institution bereitgestelltes Bild (außer eine Bild-Agentur, mit der die DW einen Rahmenvertrag abgeschlossen hat): Angabe der Quelle/des Zulieferers: Sharkproject Rechteeinräumung: Bild wurde mir von der Organisation Sharkproject zur kostenlosen Veröffentlichung für diese eine Bildergalerie zur Verfügung gestellt. Copyrightangabe: (c) Gerhard Wegner / Sharkproject Thematische oder zeitliche Nutzungsbeschränkungen: nur für diese eine Bildergalerie zum Thema Überfischung. Ansonsten erneut bei Sharkproject nachfragen!
China has banned official banquets from serving shark fin soup, a delicacy blamed for a sharp decline in global shark populationsImage: Gerhard Wegner/Sharkproject

But the experts at the talks explained this is short-sighted. Sharks eat predators of other fish, so if too many sharks die, the population of animals that feed on the same fish as humans will boom. This means, we'll have less fish available for human consumption.

Slow reponse

Governments are slowly starting to take action. There is an ongoing debate at the European level about a possible ban on shark finning. This means cutting off a shark's fin and tossing the rest of the creature back into the water. According to Greenpeace, the shark is often still alive. It is dumped back into the water, unable to swim and sinks to the bottom where it drowns or dies of starvation.

Attacks on shark populations are the exact reason the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species has drawn up a moratorium of understanding concerning migratory shark species. But only 25 countries have signed the non-binding moratorium. They are drawing up an action plan, which will include a push for stronger regulation and better information distribution.

A diver swims in a pool with a cat shark
Very little is known about shark breeding habitsImage: Getty Images

Continuing the hunt

The main turning point is the upcoming meeting of CITES, the international Convention on Trade and Endangered Species, in Bangkok next March. Germany, the EU and Brazil are pushing hard to include the porbeagle and hammerhead shark on the annex of endangered species. This would place restrictions on the trade of these species.

But it won't be easy to get these sharks onto the list. "Japan and China will be working very hard to avoid the listing of any further sharks," explained IFAW's Ralf Sonntag. Both camps have already started lobbying senior officials in Europe and Asia and it remains unclear what the fate of the sharks will be.