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The Q? Blog

Choose Your Weapon: Shark or Vending Machine

by Devin Reese -- Aug 1, 2014
Devin Reese, smiling

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Silky Shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) off the coast of Cuba. Photo by Alex Chernikh, via Wikimedia and EOL, CC-BY.
Silky Shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) off the coast of Cuba. Photo by Alex Chernikh, via Wikimedia and EOL, CC-BY.

You may have heard that more people die from vending machine accidents every year than from shark bites. My fourth grader knew that, and it's not hard to dig up statistics to confirm it. So, if we're going to make the world a safer place by eradicating vending machines or sharks, I'd choose vending machines.

Yet, populations of vending machines seem to be stable or growing, while sharks are on the decline. In honor of Shark Week, I perused the sharks in the Q?rius Collections at the National Museum of Natural History. Most of the modern sharks are listed as near-threatened on the IUCN Red List, which tracks the conservation status of plants and animals globally.

For example, the silvertip shark, the silky shark, and the Caribbean reef shark are all on the Red List. Why are many species of sharks headed towards extinction these days? The short answer is that they are a package of profitable assets- fins, skins, jaws, cartilage, meat, and oil. The longer answer is that because sharks are more feared than revered, conservation measures to protect them are limited and late.

Like other wide-ranging marine species, sharks live in international waters and are subject to the conservation pitfalls of crossing political boundaries. Consider the Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi), which ranges from North Carolina all the way to Brazil. While it is protected in Florida and the Bahamas, it is heavily fished in other parts of its range, such as the coast of Cuba.

NOAA Agent in a parking lot, leaning over to inventory confiscated shark fins, NOAA photoShark fishing is poorly regulated in many parts of the world, but an equally pernicious problem is accidental catch of sharks by other fisheries. The silvertip shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) is part of the "bycatch" in tuna fisheries. Fishermen might throw the shark back in the sea, but often minus it's valuable fins. A shark without fins does not survive long. To circulate water through their gills to get oxygen, sharks must swim continuously.

Many sharks, such as the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), even if well-protected, would have a long population recovery time because of their life history. Silky shark females give birth every year or two, but it can take pups more than 10 years to mature and reproduce. So, a population depleted of adult sharks has a recovery time of decades.

About a quarter of shark species are threatened with extinction, and many others may be headed in that direction. What's the good news? A Shark Conservation Act was signed into U.S. law in 2011, followed by conservation actions beyond our borders: 2011 ban on finning sharks in the waters off Chile; 2012 ban on shark fishing and trade in American Samoa; 2013 ban on keeping sharks caught in tuna bycatch in the Indian Ocean; 2013 landmark agreement on shark conservation made at CITES convention; 2014 ban on serving shark fin at Hong Kong official functions; etc. 

Maybe sharks, which have been on Earth for more than 400 million years, will outlive vending machines after all.


Categories: Q?rius News
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