Shark

Facts

  • Weight
    up to 11 tons
  • Length
    8 in.-40 ft.
  • Habitats
    Oceans

1,000

There are over 1,000 species of sharks and rays

With fossil records dating back 400 million years, sharks have outlived the dinosaurs and many other forms of life currently on earth. There are more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays, with new species discovered every year.

These majestic top predators that are so essential to the natural order of marine ecosystems now face their most severe threat from overfishing. Many species are threatened with extinction, with some families of rays such as sawfishes in peril. While sharks and rays have been an irreplaceable resource for coastal communities in the developing world for centuries, this unique balance is in danger of being lost forever.

With our oceans severely degraded, restoring sharks is key to improving the resilience of these water bodies to climate change. While sharks' diverse range of species adds complexity to our conservation efforts, the dwindling numbers of these amazing creatures from overfishing and demand for their fins and meat increases the urgency of the task. Through our multi-pronged strategies, and guided by the Global Priorities for Conserving Sharks and Rays - A 2015-2025 Strategy, we strive to restore the balance between humans and sharks.

Five ways sharks and rays help the world

Sharks and rays are some of the most enigmatic and misunderstood creatures of the ocean. They are crucial for the health of our planet. This blog describes five incredible ways in which sharks and rays help the world, from fighting climate change to digging through sand for their neighbors to feeding phytoplankton.

Tiger shark swims over seagrass.

Why They Matter

  • Shark populations around the world are in rapid decline. Sharks grow relatively slowly, take many years to mature and produce relatively few young. These characteristics make sharks, like this porbeagle, particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation.

  • This vulnerability is exacerbated by the large and growing demand for shark fins and the general lack of management of shark fishing. Populations simply cannot replenish at the same rate as they are caught and finned to meet market demand.

  • Sharks play a very important role in marine areas, sitting at the top of the food chain, and help maintain the delicate balance of marine life.

Threats

Hammerhead shark caught in a gillnet

Scalloped hammerhead shark caught in a gillnet, Gulf of California, Mexico.

Pirate Fishing

Overfishing and illegal fishing of sharks for their fins is depleting populations worldwide. There is often a general lack of even basic management monitoring, control, and surveillance of many fisheries. Improving the capacity to combat pirate fishing (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) of sharks is a key factor in ensuring that shark fishing and shark populations are sustainable.

Demand for Shark Fin

The growing trade in shark fins –often used to make an expensive Asian soup—has become a serious threat to many shark species. The latest research suggests that around 100 million sharks may be killed annually, often targeted for their fins. This practice affects many different shark species, including whale sharks.

Overfishing

The overfishing of sharks happens because of the huge demand—mainly for shark fins—and a lack of management to ensure shark fisheries are sustainable. Some species, such as spiny dogfish and porbeagle, are targeted primarily for their meat.

The oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three hammerhead species are some of the shark species of concern for WWF, where the impact of trade is contributing to declines in populations. Millions of these sharks continue to be fished annually to supply the persistent demand for their fins and meat. Controls on fishing are woefully insufficient. As a result, the oceanic whitetip, porbeagle, and the smooth hammerhead are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, while scalloped and great hammerhead sharks are classified as endangered.

Threats to pelagic sharks

Overfishing is the overwhelming threat, with open ocean longlines using hundreds if not thousands of hooks each catching the greatest volume of sharks globally. While these fisheries may be primarily targeting tuna and billfishes such as marlin, the sharks caught are an important source of income, particularly their fins. Tuna purse-seiners also catch sharks, although these have a better chance of being released alive, while gill nets are an ecological disaster, catching almost anything in their path, including whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks.

While the oceans are vast, there are few refuges from industrial fishing, and some pelagic species, such as the oceanic whitetip have suffered massive population losses due to their inability to reproduce more quickly. Seventeen out of the 39 pelagic shark species are threatened with extinction.

Threats to reef sharks

As with most shark species, overfishing is by far the biggest threat to most larger reef sharks, while damage to reef and other key habitats is also having an impact. The clearance of mangroves has a negative impact on species whose young use these as nursery grounds. The loss of living coral reefs due to sedimentation and fertilizer run-off from farmland, and climate change, will often reduce the amount of prey for sharks. Many kinds of food fishes that humans like to eat inhabit reefs, and so reefs are targeted by fishers, using types of fishing that also catch sharks.

Some 25% of all the 494 sharks and rays inhabiting coastal continental shelves, which includes all reef sharks, are threatened with extinction. There may be many more as the conservation status of 35% is not yet known.

Threats to rays

In the ray's marine realm, overfishing is the largest threat. Some of the most valuable fins in the shark fin trade are from shark-like rays, such as sawfishes and large guitarfishes, while the meat of many species of rays and skate are also eaten in coastal communities.

Five out of the seven families of elasmobranch most threatened with extinction are rays.

Bycatch

Sharks are often caught incidentally by fishing gear set for other types of fish—such as tuna longlines, trawls and seine nets—and many will simply be discarded. This contributes to the decline of many species of sharks.

What WWF Is Doing

Whale Shark Research

Logging details about a whale shark satellite tag. 

WWF and other conservation organizations are leading the fight to save the world's sharks. We are working through TRAFFIC, the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network, to regulate the trade in shark fins and meat and reduce market demand. We are also trying to ensure that conservation and management measures for sharks are implemented by fishery management organizations and by countries participating in multi-lateral trade agreements.

Tagging Great White Sharks

WWF supports research and monitoring of white sharks as they migrate to and from the Gulf of California. Sharks are tagged and the movements are tracked by satellite. This information on their behavior will help with a management plan for the protected area where they are found (Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve), such as how to protect them from bycatch and to regulate tourism.

Great White Shark

Responsible Management

Up to 100 million sharks and rays are caught each year across the globe, whether on purpose in targeted fisheries or by accident, as bycatch, in fisheries targeting other species. Most fisheries where sharks and rays are caught are unmanaged and for example, lack catch limits. As a consequence, these animals often end up being fished faster than they can reproduce. Urgent improvements are needed to reduce illegal, unsustainable, and unregulated practices in existing fisheries that take sharks and rays.

WWF works actively on fisheries management in over 15 different countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Pacific, and Europe. This list includes seven of the biggest shark fishing nations, which collectively land nearly half of all global reported shark and ray catches (2007-2017).

Our fisheries management work encompasses a wide range of approaches. We assist governments with the development of National Plans of Action for Sharks and implementation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). To protect migratory species and improve cross-border conservation, we also engage in the development of regional action plans, including those in the Coral Triangle, the Northern Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean.

In the high seas, where shark and ray fishing takes place beyond the territorial waters of specific countries, we advocate for improved management and conservation measures by the regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). These organisations bring fishing nations together to manage and monitor fish stocks and govern fishing in specific regions of the ocean.

To help minimise bycatch, we develop and trial innovative bycatch mitigation solutions such as LED lights or Electro Shield System (ESS). Our teams collaborate with authorities in over 10 countries to create new marine protected areas and improve the already existing ones to help conserve species and habitats. WWF has partnered with the James Cook University to develop A Practical Guide to the Effective Design and Management of MPAs for Sharks and Rays. This tool provides practical information and the best available science on effective spatial protection for marine authorities.

Marine tourism is often the only direct benefit coastal communities can gain from shark and ray populations beyond fishing. Our teams in Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Mediterranean apply this approach. WWF has also collaborated with The Manta Trust and Project AWARE to produce the Responsible Shark and Ray Tourism: A Guide to Best Practice. The Guide contains practical tools and guidance on best practises that can be used by operators, NGOs and local communities to ensure that marine tourism benefits both people and nature.

Responsible Trade

While progress toward improving management in existing fisheries that take sharks has been slow at the national level, there has been a breakthrough in trying to ensure that the international trade is conducted sustainably. If a species is listed on CITES Appendix II, the animals and products from them cannot be exported unless it can be shown that their exports will not affect the survival of these species in the wild.

Following successful campaigns by WWF, TRAFFIC, and other like-minded organisations in 2013 and 2016, 17 species of shark and ray got listed on CITES Appendix II. In total, 43 different species (including 14 sharks and 19 rays) are currently listed. The listings cover some of the most commercially valuable species, and should act as a motivation for shark fishing nations to accelerate fisheries improvements. Listed species include the oceanic whitetip, silky and thresher sharks as well as manta and mobula rays.

Wildlife trade experts TRAFFIC provide deep insights into the global trade of shark and ray products, and seek to introduce traceability systems as the backbone of sustainability.

WWF and TRAFFIC continue to monitor the trade in CITES-listed species to ensure that credible and transparent sustainability assessments are undertaken, and that importing nations comply with CITES permit controls to prevent shark fin, shark meat, and manta gill plates being imported illegally.

Responsible Consumption

Whale shark

Sharks are sought for fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage, with the demand for shark meat as concerning as the more publicized pursuit of their fins. According to FAO statistics, the average declared value of global shark fin imports from 2000 to 2011 was nearly US$378 million per year. Shark meat is more likely to be consumed locally, but the average declared value of shark meat products in the same time frame was still nearly US$240 million a year.

The demand for shark fins in Asia, and shark meat more globally, are the biggest factors driving overfishing and population declines. In Hong Kong, the centre of the fin trade, shark fin soup is a luxury item served at wedding banquets and other celebrations; it symbolizes power, wealth and generosity. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, the gill plates of manta rays and devil rays are used to make a detoxifying health tonic.

While the demand for shark, ray and skate meat isn’t given as much attention as shark fin, the international demand for these products has more than doubled since the early 1990s, and the sheer volume from fisheries that are not well managed is a serious threat to the survival of these species. We have more than 10 years of experience in reducing the unsustainable consumption of shark fin in key Asian markets, and are expanding the scope of our work to understand and tackle major markets for shark and ray meat.

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