We’ve known for some time that large species are being eliminated at a rate that could essentially wipe them out, and yet little has been done to mitigate this problem. After Jaws came out, sharks were primarily hunted as trophies or as symbols of manhood, but during the 1980′s commercial fishermen were told to turn to sharks as an alternative for other fish on the decline. This, of course, backfired and sharks continued to suffer, all the while the atrocious practice of finning (cutting a sharks fins off and dumping the rest of the body back into the ocean, often still alive) went on to supply traditional remedies/cuisine to Asia. According to this LiveScience article, we’ve now reached the point were large sharks are no longer effective as apex predators in some areas (primarily the East Coast of the US), and smaller sharks and rays are no longer kept in check. In addition to the sick and dying fish, sharks eat other sharks and rays regularly, and now that the large sharks are gone the smaller ones are not kept in check and decimating their food supply, which will in turn lead to a population crash when their food runs out and a large swath of major marine predators will be gone.
Part of the problem is that we can detect the effects of reduced shark populations, but we have no idea how many there really are. Sure, sharks get some protection and we know their numbers are declining, but management plans are exceedingly lacking in population studies. Beyond the difficulty of figuring out a marine organisms population size, there doesn’t seem to be that much interest in sharks. Last fall, I went to one of the “big wheels” of the marine science department telling him I wanted to get involved with shark ecology and population studies, to which he replied “What are you ever going to do studying sharks?” There seems to be a realitively small group of scientists who study sharks, but not nearly enough to gather the type of data needed to protect the many species that are now in trouble.