Sharks are misunderstood — and worth protecting

sharks have an unquestionably bad reputation.

The very word conjures up images of prehistoric animals that strike from the depths without warning. But just how dangerous are these powerful animals?

On average, sharks kill approximately five humans a year. In the whole world. five. That’s one out of every 1.6 billion people. Globally, in 2021, there were 73 unprovoked shark attacks on humans. The vast majority of these victims survived. Put simply, the chance of being attacked and/or killed by a shark is infinitesimally low. Sharks, then, are not a serious threat to humans.

They are very important, however.

We should all be scared of oceans without sharks. Revenue from fisheries/seafood is estimated to reach $580 billion in 2022. Healthy shark populations are crucial to supporting this. There is a common misconception that when you take the predators away, there are more fish. But as predator populations drop, their prey population increases. These enlarged populations then start to decimate their own prey populations. The environment unravels up and down the food chain.

Sharks are also critical to the health of coral reefs. And why are coral reefs so important? Well, the US government estimates the economic value of global coral reefs at about $375 billion. Coral reefs provide substantial economic value through tourism such as scuba diving and by supporting populations of commercially important fish species. By acting as natural breakwaters, they are estimated to reduce flooding and erosion by up to 97%. As coral reefs decline globally due to climate change, healthy shark populations are critical to keeping them going.

Then there’s shark tourism. In 2013, global catches of sharks were estimated to be worth $600 million to the global economy, while shark tourism was estimated to be around $400 million. Today, that figure has reversed, with shark tourism worth around $600 million and shark fishing $400 million. A shark is worth more alive than dead. Indeed, a study in Palau found that a single shark can generate nearly $2 million in ecotourism revenue throughout its lifetime! The fins from a shark are typically sold for around $2,000. This means that a live shark in Palau is worth 1,000 times more over its lifetime than a dead one.

The problem is that sharks are being pushed toward extinction. It is estimated that humans kill approximately 100 million sharks each year. For every human that a shark kills, we kill 20 million sharks. Three out of every four shark species are now endangered, with more being added to the list yearly. Global fishing fleets are smashing shark populations. Sometimes, this is intentional, and other times accidental. Regardless, global shark populations are rapidly declining. A paper in the prestigious publication Nature estimated that global shark populations have declined by 71% since 1970.

The impact of plummet shark populations might be more subtle than other challenges. But it does impact all of our lives. I know I’ve thrown out a lot of statistics that are difficult to arrive at. Still, the numbers offer a glimpse of the economic value of sharks. The bottom line is that humanity is far better off with these animals than we are without them.

Andrew Rogan is a marine biologist specializing in the study and preservation of whales and their habitats.


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