Animals Wildlife What Would a World Without Sharks Be Like? By Melissa Breyer Melissa Breyer Editorial Director Hunter College F.I.T., State University of New York Cornell University Melissa Breyer is Treehugger’s editorial director. She is a sustainability expert and author whose work has been published by the New York Times and National Geographic, among others. Learn about our editorial process Updated July 16, 2019 Tatiana Popova / Shutterstock Share Twitter Pinterest Email Animals Wildlife Pets Animal Rights Endangered Species Pity the sharks. They are not generally considered to be cute and cuddly; they tend to incite shudders rather than “aww”s. It’s bad enough that they are frequently cast as villains by Hollywood, but the real injustice comes from the shark’s distinct misfortune of having fins which demand a high price for use in soup. Consider this. Sharks have been around for 400 million years and have survived five mass extinction events. Yet in the last few decades, some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent thanks to overfishing – and some species are teetering on the edge of extinction. By some accounts, 100 hundred million sharks are killed every year. Up to 73 million of those are killed for shark fin soup (for which sharks are often finned alive and left to die in the ocean). What is wrong with us? Aside from the cruelty of it all, and the fact that we’re on the way to killing off sharks basically for the sake of soup, it is more than just sad. Our oceans rely on these fascinating creatures, and without them, the ocean would suffer enormously. Sharks Keep Our Oceans Balanced We asked Stefanie Brendl, conservationist and founder of Shark Allies, that question and she replied: "A world without sharks would be a world with oceans that are sick and dying.” In 2010, Brendl worked directly with Hawaii State Senator Clayton Hee to create a landmark bill to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Since then, Brendl and Shark Allies have been working in The States and the Pacific to ban the trade of fins and to create shark sanctuaries. And the fruits of that work can’t come quickly enough. As apex predators, sharks maintain healthy fish populations by removing weak animals and allowing the strongest of a species to thrive. The organization describes sharks as also being like the white blood cells of the sea, “they keep the ocean clean and keep disease from spreading by removing the sick, dead or dying.” Like all ecosystems that have evolved over time, each part is dependent on the others; in the case of the ocean, removing such an important component – the sharks – would have a cascading effect and throw the whole ocean out of whack. Of a world without sharks, Brendl told us: “It would be a gigantic failure for humanity that would affect everything from coral reefs to food security and climate change. Once sharks are gone, there is nothing we can do to replace the critical role they play in the balance of the oceans." What Can We Do to Help the Sharks? Obviously, skip the shark fin soup. But shark products are used elsewhere as well. In cosmetics, shark ingredients go by the name of “squalene.” On menus, shark sometimes goes by the alias of “flake.” And given that one-third of the seafood we buy is mislabeled, shark could be going by any number of names. (By the way, shark meat usually comes with extremely high levels of Mercury, PCBs, Urea and other deleterious toxins– something to tuck away in the back of your brain for the next time you are at the fish market.) And for those who believe that taking shark fin supplements and/or shark liver oil will prevent cancer, the American Cancer Association, the FDA and many other organizations strongly disagree. These claim are not backed up by science – one might as well be chewing on fingernails. Juvenile coral catshark. SergeUWPhoto / Shutterstock It’s easy to campaign for polar bears and giant pandas and elephants – but we need to start standing up for the sharks too. Even if JAWS has inspired generations of shark-fearing beachgoers, most sharks are harmless to humans. We may think of all of them as behemoth human-chomping machines, but in reality, 80 percent of shark species don’t exceed five feet in length and do not hurt people. I mean, look at that cute coral catshark above; what's not to love. But cute isn't the point. As Brendl says: "Whether you like them or not, sharks are important for the health of the ocean and therefore important to every human being on this planet." Learn much more at Shark Allies, and take action here.