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shark underwater Populations of large sharks, such as the great white shark, have dropped by 90 percent. (David Fleetham / Visuals Unlimited / Corbis)

Sharks in Hot Water

The number of sharks is falling fast, and humans are to blame

By Laura Modigliani | June 13 , 2011
<p>As many as 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. (Mark Conlin / Biosphoto)</p>

As many as 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. (Mark Conlin / Biosphoto)

It’s a popular dish eaten by millions of people. It’s a symbol of wealth and power and is often served at weddings and banquets.

It’s shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese dish that is served in restaurants worldwide. To satisfy the growing demand for the soup, fishermen kill as many as 70 million sharks each year—just for their fins.

That’s a big reason shark populations are falling fast. The numbers of the largest sharks—including the famous great white shark—have dropped by 90 percent since the 1950s. Scientists say that about one third of all shark species are at risk of becoming extinct.

To help protect these ocean predators, President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act in January. This law bans any U.S. boat from catching or transporting sharks without their fins attached.

A bill introduced in California in February would take shark conservation a step further. It would ban the sale and possession of shark fins. That would include serving shark fin soup. Hawaii passed a similar ban last year.

SINKING FISH

Scientists say the practice of finning is a major cause of the collapse in shark populations. In finning, fishermen slice off the fins of live sharks and throw the bodies back into the water. Without their fins, the sharks sink to the ocean floor and die.

Sharks are more vulnerable to overfishing than other types of fish. They grow slowly and have fewer offspring than other fish do. Sharks are often captured and killed faster than they can repopulate the waters.

But some lawmakers and restaurant owners argue that banning shark-finning is an unfair attack on Chinese culture. “Shark’s fin soup has been in our culture for thousands of years,” California State Senator Leland Yee told The New York Times.

Finning is also big business. Fishermen sell the fleshy fins to fish markets and producers of shark fin soup, mainly in China. A pound of fins might sell for as much as $200.

Why should we care about protecting these fearsome meat eaters? As the top ocean predators, sharks keep the populations of other fish from growing too large. If sharks were to be wiped out, their usual prey would reproduce unchecked. That could throw the ocean food chain off balance.

Biologist John McCosker told Scholastic News that “Removing the top-level predators in the ocean has significant effects on [its] ecosystem.”

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