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100 million sharks killed every year, UWindsor researcher estimates

A new paper co-authored by a University of Windsor researcher is shedding light on how the demand for shark fin soup is devastating the global shark population.

The numbers are staggering. According to the paper, 100 million sharks are killed every year, or roughly one in every 15.

"It's a fair bit in excess of what these sharks can withstand," said Dr. Steven Kessel, a post-doctoral scholar at UWindsor's Great Lakes Institute. "If we continue at the current rate, some shark species could become extinct in our lifetime."

Kessel's work on sharks has taken him to the Canadian Arctic, the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan, Egypt, the Bahamas and a number of locations along the eastern seaboard.

He says mortality rates for sharks are highly contested, and hopes this most recent paper can offer academics, as well as activists, some "scientific, peer-reviewed numbers."

The largest threat to sharks is the growing demand for shark-fin soup. However, in contrast to other fish, sharks' slow growth and reproductive rates compound the problem.

In fact, Kessel estimates that the global shark population has declined by 50 per cent since the advent of organized, commercial fishing.

"If we continue at the current rate, some shark species could become extinct in our lifetime."

Fortunately, Kessel says a growing awareness of unsustainable and inhumane practices in the shark trade is leading to positive change. A number of cities, including Toronto, have placed a ban on shark-fin products, and it's become illegal to traffic in shark fin across the entire western coast of the United States.

"It's extremely important to protect them," Kessel said. "They're of great ecological importance in terms of maintaining the equilibrium of the marine ecosystem.

"Sharks eat specific fish, and if you take the sharks away, those fish will explode and eat the smaller fish below them. And those could likely be commercial fish."

Sharks can also offer a tourism boost to many developing countries. From an eco-tourism perspective, Kessel says a live shark can be worth "tens of thousands of dollars" compared to the "hundreds" that can be made by selling its fins.

Although he applauds local bans on shark fins, Kessel says that for solutions to be effective, they need to be implemented at both national and international levels.

For example, Kessel says restaurants just outside of Toronto can still sell shark-fin soup, and the ban on the shark trade in U.S. states like California has just pushed shark traders north into British Columbia.

"The demand is still there, so you're just displacing it geographically," he said.

Change is also needed at the cultural level, Kessel says, particularly in China where shark-fin soup is seen as a traditional dish.

"It might be a generational thing," he said. "If we can target younger generations and get them to reduce demand or find a substitute, then it could secure the long-term future of sharks."

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