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Shark Week: Why Predator Has Become the Prey

“I don’t think you understand, I LIVE FOR THIS WEEK!”  

“Shark week. Hello.”   

“Sharks like to sunbathe and can even get a tan!”  

This is just a sampling of the many Facebook statuses I’ve seen recently since the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week program started on July 31

I heard two guys on the radio talk about it for at least 10 minutes. The radio show host stated that “even though [he] had seen every shark week for the last five years, you can bet [he’ll] watch every minute of this week!” 

The show was first started in 1987 (12 years after the film "Jaws") to help people appreciate sharks as amazingly powerful and highly adapted organisms rather than human munching machines. Did you know virgin female sharks can get pregnant without ever going near a male? Or that many sharks have light producing organs? Sharks are incredible!

But over the past year, sharks have become more of a dividing point amongst communities and cultures than one of mutual fascination. On June 28, Hawaii became the first state to implement a long-discussed ban on shark fins in restaurants where they have been used in the traditional Asian shark fin soup. Oregon, Washington, and California have passed similar bans, which highlights a growing divide between environmental and cultural conservationists. Shark fin soup dates back to the Ming Dynasty as a delicacy for royalty and the elite. With globalization and higher living standards, it has come into high demand among a growing middle class as the main dish of any important occasion to demonstrate the wealth of the family and a respect for the guests. Although the soup is generally still incredibly expensive (a single bowl can cost up to $100), the price does not reflect the incredibly high cost for the global shark population.

When sharks are harvested for their fins, they get hauled onto the deck of a ship, have their fins cut off, and are then thrown back into the water, often still alive, where they die from a combination of blood loss and drowning. Although this process often gains fishermen more than one fin per shark — as caudal, pelvic, and pectoral fins are used in addition to the traditional dorsal — it is far from a sustainable trade. It is thought that at least 73 million sharks die each year from the finning industry alone. 

I say "at least," because any number that gets put on the shark fin trade does not account for the unreported shark fins traded on the black market.  

And, this number does not include the numbers of sharks that die for other reasons — as by-catch to other fisheries, from habitat degradation, and as meat or leather for more isolated populations. As a species that is generally very slow to mature (the white shark takes up to 15 years), this means that sharks are being killed faster than they can be replaced. So if you are like me, one of over 30 million fans projected to watch this year’s shark week, I’d recommend taking a minute to visit one of the websites listed below to learn more about groups working to conserve global shark populations. Let’s keep Shark Week from getting cancelled!

Global Shark Conservation

Stop Shark Finning

Shark Research Institute

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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