Sharks are disappearing from the world’s seas. As alpha predators they should have been thronging the oceans and especially the reefs, which are so rich in prey. But a report published Wednesday reveals just how dire their situation is today: almost no sharks at all were observed in 20 percent of the world’s reefs.
Sharks have been around for around 450 million years. They survived multiple mass extinctions and wild swings in planetary climate. But now, in one in every five reefs, sharks have gone “functionally extinct,” a vast international team involving dozens of scientists working with the Global FinPrint organization reported in Nature.
On land we can tell when a species goes extinct, or functionally extinct – which means that some individuals may be clinging on, but not enough to recreate a viable population – because we can see them. At sea, however, we can never tell when the last of a given species has died; there may be more individuals in the depths. The deep-sea dwelling coelacanth that had been thought extinct for 66 million years and turns out to be no such thing is a good example: we just didn’t see them.
But we can see when a population we once knew is vanishing. And now we are not seeing many sharks, thanks chiefly to wanton or outright illegal fishing.
The report on the depletion of reef sharks was based on data from more than 15,000 standardized baited remote underwater video stations, deployed on 371 reefs in 58 nations.
Almost no sharks were detected on any of the 69 reefs of six nations: the Dominican Republic, the French West Indies, Kenya, Vietnam, the Windward Dutch Antilles and Qatar, said co-author Prof. Colin Simpfendorfer from James Cook University in Australia. “In these countries, only three sharks were observed during more than 800 survey hours,” he said.
The study focuses on reef sharks, likely for the pragmatic reason that, similarly to land animals, they can be seen relatively easily. It is extremely difficult to accurately assess the state of shark populations in the open seas.
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Missing from the Mediterranean but not your plate
Even so, some assessments do exist and they are horrifying – especially regarding the Mediterranean Sea. Other studies have shown terrible results, for the sharks that is.
“According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Mediterranean Sea is the worst place in the world for sharks and batoids [rays],” says Adi Barash, chairwoman of the Sharks in Israel NGO and doctoral candidate at the University of Haifa. “About 53 percent of the cartilaginous fish [sharks and batoids] are in danger of extinction. The big coastal sharks have disappeared from the Mediterranean – their populations have decreased by about 95 percent,” she tells Haaretz.
The famed mako shark is critically endangered, Barash adds. So are the evocatively named angel shark and butterfly ray.
Of the 47 percent shark and ray species in the Mediterranean that haven’t been listed as endangered, around 18 percent are “data insufficient.” Meaning they may be endangered but we just don’t know.
“Of the [Mediterranean sharks] we have assessed, we know only 28 percent are not in danger of extinction,” Barash says.
The World Wildlife Fund charged in a 2020 report that conservation legislation by the Mediterranean countries is “toothless,” and is ignored in any case: “Protected and threatened shark and ray species are being killed and landed in Mediterranean fisheries in all European Union and non-EU countries,” the WWF reports, adding: “Highly protected species keep getting caught, and they end up on our plates.”
As for the Red Sea, there is simply no data whatsoever, Barash says. Only Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University is studying shark populations in the Red Sea, notably looking at the behavior of the whale shark.
While nobody seems to be tracking Red Sea shark and batoid populations, the one thing that can be said is: the sharks seem to be disappearing there, too.
Barash for one hopes the Red Sea may yet spring a surprise, noting that when she dives by the Eilat reefs, the biodiversity is astonishing.
However, she adds, it’s enough to dive off the Sinai coasts and see there are no sharks – which absolutely should not be the case.
“You don’t need to monitor to know there should be predators,” Barash points out. “The schools of hammerhead sharks in the Red and Mediterranean seas are gone.” She clarifies that the hammerheads of the Red and Med seas are different subspecies of hammerheads.
Protected in Israel, sort of
So, leaving the Red Sea and its reefs out of it, after nearly half a billion years of overcoming, sharks are succumbing to fishing pressure, period.
“Shark depletion was strongly related to socioeconomic conditions such as the size and proximity of the nearest market, poor governance and the density of the human population,” write Aaron MacNeil and colleagues in the Nature report. In other words, they are being massively overfished and, even when protected, enforcement against shark poachers is insufficient.
“The Mediterranean is very small with a lot of countries around it and the sharks are subjected to heavy fishing pressure. There are a lot of people and very little sea,” Barash observes.
In Israel, all sharks and batoids have been protected by law since 2005. “We’re the only country where all species are protected,” Barash says. That said, enforcement of shark protection only began in 2008, and enforcement of batoid protection began in 2013.
“Today, Israeli enforcement is good,” she says. “The law is hermetic, perfect. The situation can only improve through more research of the animals,” she sums up.
But Israel isn’t alone around the Mediterranean, and while European enforcement of shark protection exists, enforcement by the North African nations seems to be lesser. And sadly for the cartilaginous fish, the countries around the Mediterranean do not cooperate.
There are exceptions, cases in which the animosity is set aside. Last Tuesday was Shark Awareness Day, and Sharks in Israel led a multination shark observation project that was joined by a host of Mediterranean nations – including Libya, Barash says.
Only 24 shark species are protected under EU law, such as it is. Yet just like the dolphins and tuna fishers, sharks and batoids get caught in nets – and who’s to say the fishermen are meticulously disentangling them and returning them unhurt to the water?
“In the Mediterranean, the situation is terrible and hasn’t improved in the last 10 years,” Barash says simply.
Can anything be done? The Nature team, the WWF and Barash agree that regulation and mainly enforcement are absolutely key.
Demian Chapman, co-leader of the Global FinPrint organization and an associate professor at Florida International University, says that clearly the central problem is the intersection between high human population densities, destructive fishing practices and poor governance.
“We found that robust shark populations can exist alongside people when those people have the will, the means and a plan to take conservation action,” Chapman says.
Indeed. People need to get over “Jaws.” It’s time to acknowledge the place of the shark is our seas and not our soup. Alpha predators have a role to play in the ecology, and we should not aspire to replace them everywhere we go – and even everywhere we can’t go, such as the ocean deep. In our mad dash to conquer and control the planet, humans have all but eradicated the major predators on land, with many – such as the tigers, all tigers, and leopards, all leopards – fast approaching the point of no return. We hardly see them anymore.
We hardly see sharks anymore, either. Threatened species of sharks and rays are illegally caught in the Mediterranean, and there’s “next to no reporting or management” over the shark and ray catches.
"Over the last decade, the situation has got much worse: it’s not yet a lost cause, but we need to take urgent action right now,” the WWF wrote.
But witness the coelacanth: there remains, after all, some hope in regulation, in enforcement and in the depths. We don’t know how many coelacanths are out there, though they do seem to be rare or at least they're inaccessible. Maybe sharks will learn to hide too.