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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.

Researchers use underwater technology to track migrating sharks

One clear morning in February, off Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, a small, boxy submarine was lowered into the water.
dispatch sub fall2018

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 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.

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.

Responsible Management

WWF is focused on three countries, which are collectively landing one quarter of the world’s shark, rays and chimeras.

Indonesia and India are two of the largest shark-catching nations in the world, and Pakistan is also a major player. Most of their fisheries taking sharks are unmanaged or lack catch limits, and we have provided support to these governments to develop National Plans of Action for Sharks. Not stopping at the policy level, we strive to collaborate with fishers and communities for mutually beneficial management improvements.

To address high levels of shark harvest and trade associated with tuna fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Pacific Island nations (more than 25 per cent of the global tuna catch), WWF/TRAFFIC launched the Pacific Shark Heritage Programme in 2014 to assist nations to reduce overfishing, through improved management.

Well-managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) help conserve species and habitats. We have collaborated with authorities to advocate the establishment of MPAs for sharks in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ecuador and other parts of the world. WWF has also collaborated with The Manta Trust and Project AWARE to produce the Responsible Shark and Ray Tourism: A Guide to Best Practice.

Responsible Trade

While progress toward establishing sustainable shark fisheries has been painfully slow at the national level, there has been a breakthrough in trying to ensure that the international trade in 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 campaigns by WWF, TRAFFIC and like-minded organizations in 2013 and 2016, 20 species of shark and ray are now listed on CITES Appendix II. The listings cover some of the most commercially valuable shark and ray species, and will ideally motivate shark fishing nations to accelerate fisheries improvements. Species include the oceanic whitetip, silky and thresher sharks, and manta rays. 

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

Related Species