It’s Shark Awareness Day: These Often Forgotten Animals Are Given the Spotlight
July 14 is Shark Awareness Day. Here at the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) at Lewis & Clark Law School, we’re honoring the occasion by celebrating this fascinating and important group of animals and sharing how we focus—every day—on protecting the interests of sharks and other aquatic animals.
With fossil records dating back over 400 million years, sharks have outlived dinosaurs and many other forms of life. Today, there are more than 1000 known Chondrichthyan species, which includes sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras – with new species discovered every year. Sharks range in size from the seven-inch dwarf lanternshark to the 60-foot whale shark. They live in a range of habitats, from shallow tide pools to the open ocean, with some species such as bull sharks living in both fresh and salt water. As apex predators, sharks play a critical role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. The depletion of shark populations causes imbalances in the ecosystem and contributes to the collapse of important fisheries.
The major threat facing sharks globally is overfishing. Fueled by demand for shark meat, fins, liver oil, cartilage, skin, and teeth and jaws, it is estimated that humans kill between 63 and 273 million sharks each year. Since this estimate represents animals who are “landed” (caught and brought to shore) and does not account for illegal, unrecorded or discarded catch, experts believe the true number of sharks killed is is vastly underestimated.
It is estimated that humans kill 73 million sharks annually for their fins alone. Shark finning is a cruel practice that involves cutting off a shark’s fins and discarding the shark’s body, often while the shark is still alive, back into the ocean. Despite being widely condemned as a cruel and wasteful practice, shark finning continues unabated due to the demand for shark fin soup—a symbol of status and prosperity—in some cultures.
A further 50 million sharks are estimated to die annually as bycatch – often as a result of indiscriminate fishing methods such as gillnets, longlines and trawls. Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they mature late in life and have low reproductive rates. Other significant threats include marine debris and pollution, climate change, and habitat loss or degradation.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group, over a quarter of all known shark and ray species are classified as “threatened.” However, fewer than half of these species receive global protection through trade restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most of those species that are listed under CITES appear under Appendix II (for species that may become threatened with extinction unless trade is closely controlled); only the five species of sawfish receive the highest possible level of protection under Appendix I (for species considered threatened with extinction and for which international trade is prohibited except in exceptional circumstances).
While CITES listing is a positive step, it does not provide protection for sharks caught within a country’s territorial waters or traded domestically. While some countries have banned or restricted shark finning in their own waters, many apply a fin-to-carcass ratio according to which the weight of the fins must not exceed a certain percentage (usually 5 percent) of the total weight of the carcasses. Once the fins are removed, it is difficult to identify the species from which the fins were taken. This creates enforcement problems and allows fishermen to exploit the law. Some countries have stronger legislation, requiring sharks to be landed whole (with fins attached to the carcass). Even then, these laws only prohibit shark finning – not shark fishing. The lack of management of shark fishing on the high seas (areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction) also leaves sharks vulnerable to exploitation.
As humans continue to fish sharks at unsustainable rates and their populations continue to plummet, there is an urgent need for more countries to implement shark fishing limits or bans, alongside measures to reduce bycatch. Current protections for sharks are inadequate and, given the fragility of their populations, enhancing protections for sharks should be a priority for all governments. Private organizations can also play a role, for example by prohibiting the sale, use, or transport of shark fins. And, of course, consumers are key to reducing demand for shark products; consumers can choose not to purchase shark products and not to support businesses that profit from the exploitation of sharks.
The Aquatic Animal Law Initiative (AALI) here at the Center for Animal Law Studies, led by Professor Kathy Hessler, was created to protect and promote the interests of aquatic animals. AALI faculty, fellows and students conduct legal analysis and engage in law reform efforts relating to the legal protection of aquatic animals. This includes: advocating on behalf of aquatic animals through the legal system; promoting the value of aquatic animals to the public by providing education about their cognitive, emotional, and physiological capacities; and harmonizing human, animal, and environmental interests. Our AALI is making a difference for aquatic animals by raising public awareness.
Please join us—today and every day—in celebrating and making a difference for sharks and other aquatic animals through the legal system.
Bianka Atlas is our first LLM Animal Law student from Aotearoa, New Zealand and a recipient of the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy International Scholarship. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Psychology and a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from the University of Auckland. She subsequently completed a Master of Science in Childhood Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Animal Welfare Investigations at Unitec Institute of Technology. Before joining the LLM program, Bianka worked in government, community law, and the not-for-profit sector, primarily in the refugee field. She is deeply passionate about social justice and creating a more compassionate world for humans and non-human animals.
The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law and three specialty Animal Law Clinics, including the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative. CALS is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.