Instant Guide

Are sharks becoming extinct?

Cuba and the Bahamas join a growing list of nations trying protect the ultimate predator before it's too late

Sharks are the ultimate hunters, and thanks to Steven Spielberg's Jaws they come equipped with their own creepy theme song. But those chill-inducing fins that skim across the ocean's surface are coveted by fishermen, making the carnivorous fish heavily hunted game. In fact, the numbers of some shark species are falling so fast that many countries are joining the fight to protect these widely feared predators. Here, a brief guide:

Why would anyone want sharks?Fishermen usually don't want the whole shark, just the fins. They're used to make shark fin soup, which is a delicacy in China and is traditionally served during weddings and other special occasions as a symbol of wealth. As the country's wealthy population has increased, so has the demand for shark fins. That has spurred a rise in a practice called shark finning — when fishermen cut off the fins, then throw the shark back into the water to die.

Is shark finning legal?In some parts of the world, yes. But a growing number of countries, including the United States, have banned or are banning shark finning in their territorial waters. The Bahamas and Cuba are the two most recent nations to join the trend. But plenty of sharks are caught in unprotected waters, so some places like Hawaii, which has one of the biggest markets for shark fins outside of Asia, have banned all shark-fin products to curb the demand.

Are sharks really in danger of extinction?Yes. Each year, 73 million sharks are reportedly killed by shark-finning fishermen, which has reduced shark populations by as much as 80 percent, according to a U.S. report. And while other hunted species, such as tuna, produce millions of eggs each year, female sharks will produce only two to four young during the same time. Now as many as one third of all shark species are threatened or near extinction. 

But they are scary and eat people!Not exactly. Sharks suffer from bad publicity, thanks to the 1975 movie Jaws, which forever tainted the carnivorous fish as the ultimate enemy to all living things. But sharks don't even like the taste of humans, says Australian shark researcher Christopher Neff, as quoted in the Daily Mail. Sharks account for just a sliver of water-related deaths. In 2010, for example, just six people worldwide were killed by sharks, while more than 1 million people drown in any given year. 

Sources: Daily Mail, National Resources Defense Council, Toronto Star, TIME

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