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Fish story's new reality is that man bites shark

Year after year, beach season brings accounts of harrowing shark attacks. 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.
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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."

Worldwide deaths by shark attacks have dipped
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.

Ellen Pikitch directs the Pew Institute for Ocean Science and co-authored a 2006 paper in the journal Ecology Letters estimating the toll of the shark-fin trade. Over the past decade, she said, there has been a shift in policymakers' attitudes toward one of the most feared species on Earth.

"We've been getting signals from all around the world that sharks are under increased pressure," Pikitch said in an interview. "The pendulum has swung, and the momentum has shifted. It took a long time to get across the idea that sharks could be in trouble."

Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans, "there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery."

Push for greater protection
In recent years, efforts to protect sharks have been driven in part by revulsion over finning. The United States has been a leading proponent of shark conservation, and in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed legislation making it illegal to possess a shark fin in U.S. waters without a corresponding carcass. Several other countries, such as Australia, Canada and members of the European Union, have also taken steps to curb finning, but their approaches vary widely.

Environmental groups are at odds with the Bush administration over the E.U. proposal to list spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks under CITES, a measure on which the United States has yet to take a position. Both species are fished off U.S. coasts: Europeans use spiny dogfish in fish and chips, while porbeagles are prized for meat and fins.

Porbeagle shark numbers have crashed by 95 percent in the northeast Atlantic, prompting the World Conservation Union to classify that population as critically endangered. And while the U.S. government has set catch limits for both species, fishermen often exceed them; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service reported that between May 2006 and April 2007, U.S. vessels caught 6.2 million pounds of spiny dogfish, exceeding the quota by more than 50 percent.

Todd Willens, the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks and the leader of the U.S. delegation to next month's endangered species meeting, said some might criticize the U.S. management plan for the two shark species, but "I'll put it up against what Europe has, which is nothing."

The administration has not decided whether it will back the new protections for spiny dogfish and porbeagle, he added, partly because of Europe's lack of a coherent conservation plan for the two species. "You can list it on paper, but if you're not putting action behind it, what's the point of going through the process?" he asked.

Some protest new limits
In the meantime, Mexico and countries like it are struggling to enforce even modest limits. When the law took effect on May 14, recreational fishermen held a "yacht protest" to complain that the new rules might interfere with marlin fishing, and many artisanal fishermen objected that big boats will continue to plumb the waters in the deep ocean while they will struggle to eke out a living.

"What's the benefit for us?" asked Manuel Espinoza Alvarez, a fisherman from La Paz who has spent 30 of his 44 years fishing off Baja's southern coast.

But Raul Villasenor, deputy director of Mexico's fisheries and aquaculture agency, said both commercial and recreational shark fishermen will benefit from the new rules. "With the new dispositions, these fisheries will have a better opportunity to maintain sustainable levels and they can be exploited for a longer period of time," he wrote in an e-mail.

Paul Ahuja, director of Mexico operations for the conservation group Iemanya Oceanica, said his group has had some success convincing local fishermen that they will be better off if they don't entirely deplete the sea of sharks. As he surveyed the carcasses of hammerhead sharks that fishermen had dumped on a beach just across from La Paz's main thoroughfare, however, he said he hoped he would not face the problem he encountered when he first moved to Mexico to survey giant manta rays, a species related to sharks.

"I had a project with giant mantas for a few years," he said, "but they disappeared."