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S.O.S., save our sharks

Published July 24, 2009

From Andy Dehart, Director of Biological Programs in Washington, DC This weekend is Shark Weekend at the National Aquarium's DC venue. We are celebrating sharks and teaching visitors more about these fascinating animals. In my last blog post, I mentioned that some species of sharks have decreased by nearly 90% in just the last 20 years. Before I explain why that is happening, let me ask a question: What do the following have in common:  driving to the beach, dogs, lightning, pigs, and falling coconuts?  Well, all of these kill more people per year than sharks.  Last year there were only 59 unprovoked shark attacks with DSC_0731only 4 fatalities worldwide.  This is a decrease from the 71 the year before and a continued drop from the year 2000 despite continued population growth and beach attendance.  Clearly we have very little to fear from sharks. Sharks, however, can not say the same about their risk from mankind.  Each day roughly 250,000 sharks are killed through targeted fisheries and as bycatch.  Many sharks are slow to mature and have very few young compared to other fish.  Some species, such as the sandbar shark which we have in our Open Ocean exhibit at our Baltimore venue, can take up to 10-14 years to mature and only have 1-14 young every other year after a 9 month gestation.  To top it off, many of the habitats these sharks are using as nursery areas are becoming overdeveloped leading to habitat loss and polluted waters. So why the high pressure on sharks?  Well their fins are extremely valuable and are harvested for a delicacy known as shark fin soup traditionally served in China but available throughout the United States.  Because their fins are so much more valuable than their meat fisherman have been known to cut off their fins and dump their still living bodies over-board to suffocate or starve in a process known as “finning”. Knowing the impact sharks have had on my life since I first saw one at age five, I really hope that the big sharks are around for my daughter (now age 2) to see and enjoy when she is older.  The good news is there is still time to save sharks and there are a few things you can do to help.  
  • Write your local Senator in support of the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 that will require all sharks landed in US waters to have their fins intact.  This act will also close a loophole in the law that allows trade of fins at sea. 
  • Be vocal against shark fin soup in restaurants and do not eat at ones that serve it. 
  • Keep in mind that many of the sharks killed are through bycatch from other fishing industries like swordfish. 
  • Make wise seafood choices by keeping a Seafood Watch card in your wallet or purse.  These are available at both aquarium venues or online at:
  • If you fish for sharks as sport use tag and release fishing rather than catch and keep fishing.
Even though we know that shark populations are on the decline, there is still a lot we need to learn, which is why I am helping Discovery Channel explore the oceans and develop shark programs. Check back soon to hear more about our experiences. In the mean time, get out and see sharks at your local Aquarium.
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