It’s shark week! A full week devoted to one of our favorite sea creatures – and one of the most misunderstood.
Here are five facts you might not know about sharks:
1) Sharks have inhabited planet Earth for approximately 400 million years.
That’s 200 million years longer than dinosaurs, roughly 2000 times longer than humans and before trees existed. In total, sharks have survived five mass extinctions.
And scientists are still discovering new sharks all the time.
In just the last three decades, scientists have identified nearly 250 new shark species. The latest is the American Pocket Shark, a shark smaller than the human hand that secretes glow-in-the-dark liquid from a gland near its front fins. Cute!
2) Nearly one third of shark species worldwide are endangered.
All too often sharks become bycatch — trapped by fishing lines or nets that weren’t set out for them in the first place. They then enter the global shark trade, estimated at as high as US$1 billion per year.
In June, Greenpeace found that fishing vessels in the North Atlantic were catching as many as 25,000 mako sharks each year. Vessels thought to be catching swordfish were in fact bringing in four times more shark than swordfish!
3) Sharks are targeted for their liver oil.
While there remains a widespread misconception that shark products are only consumed in Asia, in the form of shark fin soup, this is far from the truth.
Instead, products containing shark are found globally, and include nutrition supplements, cosmetics, and even pet food.
Many of these products are made from shark liver oil, which helps sharks to maintain buoyancy far below the ocean surface. For this reason, deep sea species such as gulper sharks, basking sharks and tope sharks are targeted for their liver oil.
4) Your moisturizer might contain shark.
Squalene, a derivative of shark liver oil, is a popular ingredient in moisturizers, sunscreens and other cosmetic products.
Although squalene can also be extracted from plants, shark oil is often a cheaper option.
But the toll on shark populations is severe. Research shows that producing one tonne of squalene requires liver oil from as many as 3,000 sharks.
5) It’s a systemic problem.
As the fishery industry expands, sharks aren’t the only marine creatures under threat.
At present, only around 1 percent of our oceans are fully protected, and there is currently no legal mechanism to establish ocean sanctuaries in the high seas. This leaves sharks and countless other marine animals at risk.
The good news is that governments are starting work on a global oceans treaty that has the potential to protect nearly a third of the high seas and would help shark populations to recover.
But a lot depends on whether we speak up. Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems, and we need to make sure they’re protected.
Zhang Jing is a forest and oceans campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. Erin Newport is an international communications officer.