How can I help sharks?Science communicator
Sharks get a lot of undeserved bad press. But these amazing animals are important to the ecosystems they live in and without them other marine life could suffer. Despite roaming thousands of miles throughout almost every corner of the world’s oceans and having survived for more than 450 million years, most shark species are now under serious threat.
To understand how to help sharks, firstly we need an understanding of what the main threats to sharks are. Certain threats, like shark finning (where a shark is caught, its fins removed and then it is discarded overboard), get a lot of attention. But this isn’t the only threat and for shark populations to recover we need to address all the threats that these animals face. Things like overfishing and habitat degradation can seem like huge issues at first – so how can one person make a difference?
Tackling the major issue – overfishing
Overfishing is the biggest threat to sharks. Recently, scientists found that fishing pressure has increased 18 times since 1970, causing shark (and ray) populations to decline by a whopping 71%. Obviously, this is concerning and can seem overwhelming. So what can you, and everyone else, do to help prevent this?
Firstly, why are they fished? Well actually, a lot of the time they’re caught accidentally. This is called by-catch. Fishing vessels that are out on the high seas trying to catch other species, like swordfish or tuna, bring sharks up in their nets. Unfortunately, because sharks need to swim constantly to breathe, even if they’re quickly released from the net they often die.
So, how can you help to reduce shark by-catch?
Not all types of fisheries have the same amount of by-catch. A certain type of fishing, called pelagic longlining, has been found to be one of the worst in terms of by-catch. Longline fisheries typically set out to catch species such as yellowfin, bluefin and skipjack tuna, as well as swordfish. Currently, the vast majority of these fisheries aren’t managed sustainably, but lots of work is being done to reduce by-catch and improve sustainability. You can support this by being responsible in what you eat.
If you are buying tuna or tuna-like fish, check the tin. Look for mentions of ‘sustainably caught’ and of gear type. You can also check out initiatives like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue fish label, which certifies that a product has been fished in a sustainable and well-managed way. Tuna caught by pole-and-line is the most sustainable in terms of having the least by-catch. By avoiding tuna, or by buying sustainably caught tuna, you’re helping to reduce the number of sharks that are accidentally caught and killed by fishing vessels on the high seas. At the end of the day, without sharks, the whole marine environment wouldn’t be as healthy and there would be far less fish in the sea to eat!
But what about when sharks are targeted?
As well as being caught accidentally, sharks are purposely fished. These fisheries are important to the livelihoods of many people across the planet, so complete bans aren’t always the answer. Currently, most shark fisheries aren’t sustainable. But they could be! In 2017, about 9% of the total global catch of sharks and rays was sustainable. We can take lessons from these sustainable fisheries, especially in terms of how they are managed. One such fishery is the wild-caught spiny dogfish fishery in the USA. It’s the largest shark fishery in that country and is MSC certified! Sustainable shark fisheries could well be the solution to managing shark populations and helping them to recover.
You might have heard of shark-fin soup, a traditional Asian dish. Even though targeting sharks for their fins is prohibited in most countries, it still happens. Targeting sharks for the meat trade (not just for their fins) is a major cause of their mortality, too. The USA and countries in Europe and South America are some of the largest importers of shark meat and often it’s mislabelled in markets. For example, in the UK fish under generic names such as ‘rock’, ‘huss’ and ‘flake’ are often spiny dogfish (an endangered species in Europe) and could even be species such as the endangered scalloped hammerhead or the shortfin mako.
Of course, simply avoiding eating shark fins and meat will help their populations to recover. If you aren’t sure whether a product could be shark, choose something else. This is because even if you ask the supplier, they may not know and could be unwittingly selling you an endangered species of shark.
It’s not just what ends up on our plates.
Shark fins and meat aren’t the only product that comes from these animals. Have you ever thought about what is in your cosmetics or medicines? If you look on the labels you might notice an ingredient called squalene, or squalane (essentially the same thing). It’s part of what makes up shark liver oil. Because sharks often have large livers, meaning lots of squalene, they’re caught for this, too.
Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to find out whether the squalene in cosmetics comes from sharks or plants (even for the people who are making the product). So, where possible, it’s best to avoid it. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative products out there that don’t contain squalene! By removing the demand for squalene and shark fins and meat, these products will become less valuable and eventually, the number of sharks being fished will decrease.
The future of shark fisheries.
Fortunately, the issue of shark overfishing is coming into the political eye, in large part due to public pressure. At the moment there’s a major focus on shark finning, but as we’ve discussed, this isn’t the only issue. To really help sharks, it’s important to educate yourself and others and to use your vote wisely. It’s not necessarily the most drastic measures, like a complete ban on shark finning and fishing, that will be the most effective at helping sharks. What we really need are very well-managed shark fisheries, backed by science.
Of course, well-managed fisheries should work alongside no-take marine protected areas where fishing is not allowed. This gives shark populations an opportunity to recover, especially in critically important habitats like nursery grounds. When you have the opportunity to vote, read up on the policies and vote for scientifically informed conservation!
What else can you do to help sharks?
We’ve talked a lot about how you can help to reduce overfishing of sharks. This is because this is the biggest threat currently causing their populations to decline. But it’s not just fishing. Climate change is causing ocean warming and acidification, which result in shark habitats becoming smaller and closer to the surface. This makes sharks more and more vulnerable to being caught. It’s also causing their remaining habitat to become degraded (less healthy), which has a knock-on effect on the sharks themselves.
So, more broadly, anything that you can do in your day-to-day life to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide, which causes global warming), will help sharks. You can do things like reduce your energy and water consumption and live by the motto ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. There’s so much information on how to live a more eco-friendly life online. Why not identify a few actions that you can take to reduce your emissions?
A big problem that small actions can solve
Taking direct action, like not eating fish (or at least buying sustainable fish) and not buying things containing shark products, is the best way for any individual to help sharks. It might not seem like much when the threats facing sharks can seem so huge, but if everyone took action, shark populations could be much healthier.
So, spread the word! Educate and encourage others to take action to help sharks, too. No one can be perfect, but if everyone does their bit we can make a huge difference and create a world where shark populations can recover. Healthy shark populations mean a healthy ocean full of wildlife, which future generations deserve to enjoy.
So, what can you do to help sharks?
Help to reduce shark by-catch by avoiding, or buying certified sustainably caught tuna. Remember, pole-and-line fisheries result in the least amount of by-catch.
Know what you’re eating! Could your chip-shop fish actually be shark? Look out for sustainable seafood initiatives and certified fish.
Check the label. Have a look through your cosmetics to see whether they contain squalene. Next time you shop, avoid this product if you can.
Use your voice and your vote. Educate others and help us to get sustainable shark fisheries onto the political agenda.
Reduce, reuse and recycle. Take action in your day-to-day life to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and protect our oceans.
David S. Shiffman. et al, 2020, Inaccurate and biased global media coverage underlies public misunderstanding of shark conservation threats and solutions, iScience.
Diego Cardeñosa, 2019, Genetic identification of threatened shark species in pet food and beauty care products, Springer Link.
Catherine A. D. Hobbs, 2019, Using DNA Barcoding to Investigate Patterns of Species Utilisation in UK Shark Products Reveals Threatened Species on Sale,, Nature.
Colin A. Simpfendorfer. et al, 2017, Bright spots of sustainable shark fishing, Science Direct.
Shelby Oliver. et al, 2015, Global patterns in the bycatch of sharks and rays, Science Direct.
Nathan Pacoureau. et al, 2021, Half a century of global decline in oceanic sharks and rays, Nature.