Fish Story's New Reality Is That Man Bites Shark

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

LAS BARRANCAS, Mexico -- Year after year, beach season brings accounts of harrowing shark attacks as people around the world plunge into the surf to escape summer's heat.

But the reality is that these fearsome predators kill an average of four people worldwide every year, while humans kill anywhere from 26 million to 73 million sharks annually, according to recent calculations by an international team of scientists.

With the latter toll mounting rapidly in recent years, there has been a growing realization that something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.

Two weeks ago, Mexico, which has a large shark fishery, enacted a new law that protects three species, bans the practice of shark "finning" -- slicing off the fins of a newly caught shark and tossing the animal back in the ocean to die -- and requires authorities to monitor the activities of large shark-fishing boats. Early next month, officials from around the globe will meet in The Hague, Netherlands, to decide whether to put tight new controls on the trade in two heavily fished species, spiny dogfish and porbeagle, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

"For most of human history, sharks have been seen as a threat to us," David Balton, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, said in a recent interview. "Only recently are we beginning to see we're a threat to them."

Unprovoked shark attacks off U.S. shores have risen over the past century, as Americans have flocked to the coasts and researchers have collected more careful statistics. Yet the number of deaths worldwide has dipped slightly in recent years, according to the International Shark Attack File, compiled by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Occasionally, the number of deadly attacks spikes, as it did in 2000 when sharks killed 11 people.

The declines in shark populations have been steep, as documented recently by scientists using technologies including satellite tracking and DNA analysis. In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.

From Mexico to Indonesia, much of the hunt for sharks is driven by the growing demand for shark-fin soup, a prized delicacy that conveys a sense of status in Asian countries whose citizens are enjoying newfound wealth.

On a recent spring afternoon in the tiny camp of El Chicharon outside Las Barrancas, two brothers, Francisco and Armando Bareno, returned to shore with a catch of two dozen mako and blue sharks. At the edge of the water, they began slicing off the fins so they could pack them separately onto a truck bound for Mexico City, more than 1,000 miles away.

The fins are so much more valuable than the meat that without the fin market, many fishermen might not bother to hunt sharks at all: The Bareno brothers get 1,000 pesos, or $100, per kilogram (2.2 pounds) for the dried fins they deliver. The shark meat fetches just 15 pesos, or less than $1.50, a kilo.

Francisco Bareno said in Spanish that he doesn't really like the work that much. "It's dangerous," he said. "But I have to live."

The fishermen catch sharks by various means, including gill nets and long lines studded with hooks that they leave out for hours or sometimes days. They are worried about making a living under the new restrictions the government has adopted -- including the shark-finning ban and placing observers on larger boats to assess the state of sharks off Mexico's coast and to protect great white, basking and whale sharks.

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