It’s late July, and that can only mean one thing: it’s Shark Week!
This year’s Shark Week kicked off with what was hailed as an epic battle of man versus beast when Michael Phelps took on a great white shark in a swimming contest. Well, the shark turned out to be just a computer simulated representation that took the Olympian to task—so much for the “drama.”
As fascinating as a Phelps/Jaws-style mashup promised to be—and truly it does pique one’s interest—it’s not the best way to learn about the very real challenges facing sharks today. (It’s not likely outracing an Olympic swimmer is one of them—with a top speed of 25 mph compared to Phelps’ top speed of 6 mph, great white sharks have nothing to fear). The reality is that many species of sharks are facing extraordinary threats to their very existence. Of the 465 known species of sharks, 141 are currently listed as threatened or near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including 26 species that are endangered or critically endangered.
So, instead of manufacturing drama between man and fake fish, Defenders will use this opportunity to address two battles affecting sharks taking place right now: President Trump’s executive order calling for the “review” of six national marine sanctuaries and five marine national monuments, and the devastating and exploitative practice of shark finning (to be addressed in a blog entry later this week—stay tuned!).
Back in April, President Trump added insult to injury when he issued an executive order shortly after his order directing the Secretary of the Interior to “review” 27 national monuments for potential elimination or reduction in size or protections. Executive Order 13795 directs the Secretary of Commerce to similarly “review” six national marine sanctuaries in addition to the five marine national monuments already under review by the Secretary of the Interior. This may be the first step towards reducing the size of or the legal protections for these incredibly important marine habitats in an effort to open these places to the fossil fuel industry and commercial fishing. Any reduction in the protections for these marine monuments and sanctuaries could have devastating effects on the numerous species of sharks, as well as thousands of other marine species, that call these places home.
Opening up these marine monuments and sanctuaries to commercial fishing would greatly increase the take of sharks, whether through intentional catch or incidental bycatch. The loss of sharks to the commercial fishing industry is a leading cause of their rapid population declines worldwide. Some estimates put the annual bycatch rate of commercial fisheries at 50 million sharks per year!
Habitat degradation and loss are also major threats to sharks, which are known to be highly susceptible to pollution and environmental contamination because of their position at the top of the marine food chain. Opening these important marine habitats to oil and gas development and commercial fishing would expose already-fragile populations to increased risks. And as a top predator, the negative impacts on sharks from extraction and fishing would have cascading effects throughout these ecosystems and on marine life they support.