January 09, 2024

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Overfishing and Sharks: How Saving a Keystone Species Through Policy and Education Can Prevent an Economic and Ecological Collapse - Anne Butterfield

Overfishing and Sharks: How Saving a Keystone Species Through Policy and

Education Can Prevent an Economic and Ecological Collapse

Anne Butterfield
Fall 2023


Introduction to Shark Conservation

     As one of the top ocean predators, sharks play an important role in the food web and help ensure balance in the ocean’s ecosystem [1]. Unfortunately, however, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71 percent since 1970[2]. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List estimates that over one-third of sharks are threatened with extinction [4]. The loss of an apex predator from an ecosystem triggers a chain of effects moving down through lower levels of the food chain [5]. Not only will the decline in shark populations have an impact on the entire ecosystem, but it will negatively impact the fishing industry. Without stricter enforcement and policies, international collaboration, and an increase in public education and interest, the negative effects of shark declines will become catastrophic to both the ocean and the people.

Current Threats to Shark Populations

     Overfishing is the largest threat to shark populations. Sharks have relatively slow growth, late sexual maturity, and a small number of young per brood [1]. These biological factors make many shark species particularly vulnerable to overfishing[1]. There is also a global market for shark products, such as shark meat, shark skin, and shark fins. Shark fins in particular are highly valuable in certain countries[6]. Shark finning (removal of the fin) is largely unmanaged and unmonitored. The Shark Research Institute estimates that the multi-billion-dollar shark finning industry has profits second only to the illegal drug trade, with over 100 million sharks killed annually[7]. Bycatch, the unintentional catching of a species while fishing for another, is another significant threat to sharks. Throughout the 1990s, fishermen captured 12 million sharks and rays as bycatch every year in international waters alone[8]. Some species have higher hooking mortality rates than others, with night sharks and scalloped hammerheads surviving only 20 to 40 percent of the time[8]. Lastly, low catch data is a huge issue with sharks and with marine species in general[9]. Reliable catch information is scarce for most sharks worldwide, with almost half of the stocks considered to be Data Deficient[9]. This means that there is inadequate information to make a direct, or indirect, assessment of their risk of extinction based on their distribution and/or population status[10]. Without proper data, it is difficult to properly address true mortality and therefore the true impacts of overfishing and bycatch.

     These multiple threats to shark populations result in a decline of large predatory sharks. This reduction, in turn, reduces natural mortality in a range of shark prey, contributing to changes in abundance, distribution, and behavior of small elasmobranchs, marine mammals, and sea turtles that have few other predators[3]. The loss of an apex consumer from an ecosystem affects the entire ecosystem and creates widespread implications for multiple species[5].

The Economic Value of Shark Conservation

     It isn’t just sharks that bear the burden of extinction. Declining shark populations could lead to the collapse of both commercially and ecologically important fish populations due to a disruption in predatory and prey dynamics [11]. The fishing industry is a significant contributor to the global economy. Coral reefs with apex predators have more coral cover and healthier ecosystems, demonstrating that sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of coral reefs[12]. If shark species continue on the path toward extinction, there will be disastrous consequences for the health of the coral reefs and the coastal communities that rely on them. Additionally, shark populations greatly impact the tourism industry. Shark tourism is a billion-dollar industry[13]. According to Shark Allies, “If sharks are protected, they represent a renewable resource that can continue fueling the economy for years to come[13]. They also state that of the 24 shark species most commonly encountered by divers on organized trips, 83% appear on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species mainly due to excessive fishing, and 54% are preferred species for shark fin soup[13].

Existing Policies and Regulations

     There are a number of existing policies and regulations aimed at protecting sharks. The United States has some of the strongest measures worldwide[14]. In the United States, as it relates to overfishing, NOAA Fisheries manages sharks in the federal waters of the U.S. and implements the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the primary law that governs marine fisheries management[15]. In 2000, the MSA was amended to include the Shark Finning Prohibition Act[16]. This Act prohibits shark finning in the United States. Through this Act, NOAA Fisheries also must provide Congress with an annual report to describe its efforts in implementation. In 2011, the Shark Conservation Act was signed into law which also amended the MSA[17] as well as the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act[18]. The Shark Conservation Act requires that all sharks in the U.S. be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached[14]. Several states have their own shark fin laws to prohibit the possession and retention of shark fins[14]. NOAA Fisheries has also taken action to address the threats caused by bycatch through ongoing efforts to find new and innovative scientific approaches to reduce bycatch in support of sustainably managing fisheries and recovering and conserving protected species[19]. According to the national ocean protection nonprofit organization, Oceana, the threats of bycatch can be overcome with collaboration between fishermen and policy makers [8].

     On an international level, several countries have made efforts to protect sharks. Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, The Bahamas, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands prohibit commercial fishing and trade of sharks throughout their exclusive economic zones, thereby creating shark sanctuaries[20]. Several territories in Canada have also taken measures to ban shark finning and several Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have taken action to protect certain species[20]. Additionally, legislatures and executives of island nations, such as the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, have signed agreements to adopt a unified regional ban prohibiting the sale, trade, or distribution of shark[20]. The Federated States of Micronesia also passed a resolution to begin the creation of a shark sanctuary and develop a regional ban on the sale, possession and trade of shark fins[20]. Once established, this will be the largest sanctuary in the world as well as the first to be established through a regional agreement[20].

Proposed Policies and Strategies

     Given that the threats to sharks are growing and that the negative impacts of declining shark populations are dangerous and looming, it is critical that we act quickly and apply measures using a variety of approaches.

International Cooperation

     Since shark habitat spans across nations, the most effective policies and regulations will involve regional and international collaboration. We need to protect sharks that migrate beyond borders, and to do so, we need to take a wider and more expansive approach. Enacting laws within the United States is helpful, but if surrounding countries don’t act similarly, the impact of overfishing on shark species may still be severe. Government collaboration would result in improved and expanded enforcement of shark protections. The policies that have been implemented in Micronesia, specifically the regional shark sanctuary, are inspiring and will encourage other nations to act similarly and build pressure, especially if more regions replicate that model. Countries should also consider using the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling as a model and come together to protect sharks through a global ban of shark fishing. Although much more difficult to achieve and perhaps not yet necessary, nations can begin the efforts to establish additional governmental agreements to better protect sharks.

Strengthen Regulations

     To better protect sharks, it is important that measures are strict. These measures should include increasing fees for violations, as well as increasing enforcement. Unregulated fishing occurs globally. With increased enforcement measures, such as additional patrolling, more thorough port inspections of vessels, and more resources to catch violators, sharks could be better protected. It is encouraging to see the many bans enacted throughout the world relating to shark finning, as that will increase catch data and monitoring, but without increased enforcement, the bans won’t be as effective.

Protected Areas

     The creation of shark sanctuaries will hopefully encourage additional nations to do the same. A key component in creating shark sanctuaries involves additional research to better understand shark migration and behavior. With additional data to demonstrate where sharks are located during specific seasons, the creation of shark sanctuaries will be most effective. This data will also inform fisheries management, as fishing could be banned in areas most frequented by sharks, at least for fisheries that use technologies that increase bycatch. If multiple ports did not allow sharks through, this would make it much more difficult to land sharks and would decrease the demand or interest in shark fishing. Therefore, additional funding and resources for shark research is critical in this fight against further population decline.

Public Education

     Public education is just as important a strategy to protect sharks as any regulation or policy. Without an increased awareness of the importance of protecting sharks, conservation efforts will be much less successful. It can also improve the relationship between humans and sharks and reduce their negative public portrayal which thwarts conservation. Education could positively reduce the demand for shark fins, meat and skin. If consumers learn to appreciate and value sharks, they would be less likely to eat them and more likely to avoid the purchase of products made from sharks. A project conducted in Hong Kong, aimed to educate primary school children about sharks, showed that concerns about the decline in shark population and the cruelty of shark hunting were the main reasons for avoiding shark fin consumption[21]. Using this model more widely throughout the world could significantly decrease the demand for sharks. A research article related to the Hong Kong project stated that children who have misconceptions that originate from myths about an unfamiliar animal are more likely to possess negative perceptions[21]. This could likely be said of adults, as well. When people care more about a species, and understand a species better, they are more likely to want to protect it. Shark Week[22] serves as another opportunity to improve public interest in conservation, as this annual event has a significant influence on the public perception of sharks. A research article that analyzed 32 years of Shark Week documentaries showed that sharks are more often negatively portrayed through Shark Week content than positively portrayed, and that alterations to programming decisions could improve public perception of sharks[23]. Shark ecotourism is already a major industry, and as that industry continues to grow, similar to public education campaigns, individuals will learn to care for and understand the species better, improving public interest in conservation. An increase in advertisement and accessibility of responsible shark ecotourism opportunities could provide further conservation benefits for particular species.

     Lastly, the fishing industry has a lot of power. Although many fishers know the ocean the best, some are driven by revenue. It is important that fishermen use responsible fishing practices to reduce bycatch, accurately record catch data, and if fishing for sharks, consider a switch to another species. Ultimately, it is the fishing industry and economy that will feel the largest impact from declining shark populations, and much of the power is in their hands. It is important that they are aware that by saving these apex predators, the fisheries will continue to thrive, and that they begin to view shark survival as an economic benefit. Such education could be included as part of the NOAA Fisheries permitting processes, and fishermen that were advocates for shark conservation could encourage others to do the same. Similar to “dolphin-safe” labeling[24], there could be benefits to developing “shark-safe” labeling programs.


     Sharks are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction, largely due to overfishing. The most critical strategies that we can enact on a global scale to protect sharks require global collaboration. Nations need to collaborate on stricter enforcement and management policies and tools, including the establishment of additional shark sanctuaries and fishing restrictions. Additional research will ensure that the best methods are being used and that the most critical habitats and species are being best protected. Public education will also become a critical tool as an increase of awareness amongst the general public as well as the fishing industry will greatly benefit shark conservation.

  1. NOAA Fisheries, Shark conservation, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/international-affairs/shark-conservation (2023).
  2. Nature 589, Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C.L., Kyne, P.M. et al, Half a century of global decline in oceanic sharks and rays, Nature 589, 567–571, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-03173-9 (2021).
  3. Ferretti, F., Worm, B., Britten, G.L., Heithaus, M.R. and Lotze, H.K, Patterns and ecosystem consequences of shark declines in the ocean. Ecology Letters, 13, 1055-1071, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01489.x (2010).
  4. Dulvy, N.K., Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C.L., Pollom, R.A., Jabado, R.W., Ebert, D.A, Finucci, B., Pollock, C.M., Cheok, J., Derrick, D.H., Herman, K.B., Samantha Sherman, C., VanderWright, W.J., Lawson, J.M., Walls, R.H.L., Carlson, J.K., Charvet, P., Bineesh, K.K., Fernando, D., Ralph, J.M., Matsushiba, J.H., Hilton-Taylor, C., Fordham, S.V, Simpfendorfer, C.A., Overfishing drives over one-third of all sharks and rays toward a global extinction crisis. Current Biology, Volume 31, Issue 21, 4773-4787, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.08.062(2021).
  5. U.S. National Science Foundation, Loss of large predators caused widespread disruption of ecosystems, News Release 11-141, https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121020(2021).
  6. Shark fins are used in a popular dish called shark fin soup which is considered a delicacy and served in many Asian communities throughout the world and are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Choy, C. P. P., Wainwright, B. J. What Is in Your Shark Fin Soup? Probably an Endangered Shark Species and a Bit of Mercury. Animals: an open access journal from MDPI, 12(7), 802, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/12/7/802(2022).
  7. Edward Dorson, Shark Research Institute, The massacre of the world’s sharks for soup, https://www.sharks.org/shark-finning.
  8. Ocean, Bycatch Spotlight: One of the biggest issues facing sharks today, https://usa.oceana.org/blog/bycatch-spotlight-one-biggest-issues-facing-sharks-today(2014).
  9. Braccini, M., Kangas, M., Jaiteh, V., & Newman, S., Quantifying the unreported and unaccounted domestic and foreign commercial catch of sharks and rays in Western Australia, Ambio, 50(7), 1337–1350. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-020-01495-6(2021).
  10. International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, https://www.iucnredlist.org/en(2023).
  11. U.S. Immigration and Customer Enforcement, https://www.ice.gov/features/wildlife(2023).
  12. Sandin, S., A., Smith, J. E., DeMartini, E. E., Dinsdale, E. A., Donner, S. D., Friedlander, A. M., Konotchick, T., Malay, M., Maragos, J. E., Obura, D., Pantos, O., Paulay, G., Richie, M., Rohwer, M., Schroeder, R. E., Walsh, S., Jackson, J. B. C., Knowlton, N., Sala, E., Baselines and degradation of coral reefs in the Northern Line Islands, PLOS One 3(2): 1-11, https://coralreefecology.ucsd.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/439/2010/09/Sandin_2008.pdf(2008).
  13. Shark Allies, Global shark tourism is a billion dollar industry, https://sharkallies.org/shark-ecotourism/global-shark-tourism.
  14. NOAA Fisheries, Shark Conservation Act, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/laws-and-policies/shark-conservation-act#:~:text=The%20Shark%20Conservation%20Act%20requires,International%20provisions(2021).
  15. 16 U.S.C. §§ 1801 – 1883.
  16. 16 U.S.C. § 1857.
  17. 16 U.S.C. § 1857.
  18. 16 U.S.C. § 1826.
  19. NOAA Fisheries, Protecting the future to reduce shark bycatch, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/predicting-future-reduce-shark-bycatch(2023).
  20. The Pew Environmental Group, How world leaders are protecting sharks, Global Shark Conservation Campaign, pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2012/04/howworldleadersareprotectingsharksfinal201pdf.pdf(2012).
  21. Tsoi, K. H., Chan, S. Y., Lee, Y. C., Ip, B. H., & Cheang, C. C., Shark conservation: an educational approach based on children’s knowledge and perceptions toward sharks, PLOS One, 11(9), e0163406, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163406, (2016).
  22. Shark Week is an annual, week-long television programming event, hosted by the Discovery Channel, which features shark-based programming.
  23. Whitenack, L.B.,Mickley, B.L.,Saltzman, J., Kajiura, S.M., Macdonald, C.C., ,Shiffman, D.S., A content analysis of 32 years of Shark Week documentaries, PLOS One, 17(11), e0256842, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0256842(2022).
  24. A dolphin-safe label is intended to show compliance with U.S. laws and regulations of tuna fishing operations. The Dolphin Protection Consumer Act (16 U.S.C. §1385) describes the conditions in which tuna products may be labeled dolphin-safe in the United States.