Peter Benchley Swims with Sharks
Credit: Chris Polk / Getty Images
Statistics are dry, lifeless, and, especially when applied to fish and other animals whose populations are (or have been) vast, necessarily approximate. Unlike dolphins and other marine mammals, which must come to the surface to breathe, sharks never have to surface and thus are impossible to count accurately. Still, the current statistics about sharks are appalling.

It is estimated – and I'll say this only once because nearly everything about sharks is estimated – that roughly 100 million sharks are killed every year by fishermen. (By contrast, fewer than a dozen humans are killed by sharks in an average year.) Most are killed intentionally, but millions die as what is euphemistically known as "bycatch," which means that they're killed while fishermen are aiming to kill something else. In the North Atlantic alone, populations of sharks and other large pelagic fish (including tunas and billfish) have been reduced by 90 percent over the past 20 years.

Ninety percent! When I grew up in Nantucket in the 1950s, the sea on a calm day appeared to be carpeted by blue sharks. The dark triangles of their dorsal fins sliced through the surface of the water, touching ancient nerves and causing hackle-raising nightmares in all who saw them. Nowadays you're about as likely to see a blue shark around Nantucket as you are a unicorn.

Long-lining and drift netting are two of the worst, most damaging methods used in commercial fishing. A longline is exactly what its name implies: a line that is long, up to 80 miles long, containing thousands upon thousands of baited hooks that kill literally everything: birds, turtles, seals, dolphins, and sharks, in addition to the tunas, billfish, jacks, and other food fish that are their targets.

Drift nets, too, do what the words imply, but the innocuousness of the name disguises the carnage they wreak. Enormous nets made of strong, thin, nearly invisible plastic filament are cast loose from fishing boats and, buoyed by floats, set adrift with the currents to snare what they can. They catch everything too big to pass through their small mesh. The worst damage they do is when they're lost, when, through carelessness or violent weather, their floats break away and the net sinks below the surface, to drift aimlessly and kill endlessly.

The decline in most fisheries can be attributed to a simple fact: There are too many people in too many big, fast, and efficient boats, equipped with too much brilliantly effective new technology for locating and catching fish, all pursuing too few fish.

We're wiping out the oceans.

With sharks, however, there's an extra, odious industry that is putting them in potentially terminal danger. It is called (again the euphemism) finning, and its object is (how innocent!) soup. No, that's not true. Its eventual product is soup; its object is status.

Shark-fin soup has for generations been an expensive delicacy in Asia. To my taste, it's stringy and slimy and mucusy and tasteless – but savor isn't the point of shark-fin soup. The point of serving it, and eating it is to show off. In a fancy restaurant, it can cost upward of $100 a bowl, and to serve it at a large affair, like a wedding, is to make a loud statement about one's wealth and success.

Until relatively recently, shark fins were acquired the old-fashioned way: Artisanal fishermen caught sharks on hand lines, cut off the fins, and used the rest of the sharks' carcasses for everything from oil to cosmetics, folk medicines, abrasives, and, of course, food. Sharks died, yes, but not too many, and the entire animal was put to use. The fishery was sustainable.

Nowadays, however, the rise of wealthy, active, mobile middle classes in many Asian countries – especially China – has driven the demand for such pricey items as shark-fin soup into a frenzy, and their value has soared. No longer is it worth keeping or processing entire sharks; the carcasses take up space that could be better filled with fins alone. And so, huge factory ships haul in their 50- and 60-mile-long lines, cut the sharks away from the hooks, slash every fin off every shark, and toss the still-living animals back into the sea, there to fall helplessly to the bottom and asphyxiate.

Although cruelty is certainly an issue, it isn't anywhere near as important as survival of the species. Depending on whose statistics one consults, of the more than 350 known species of shark, roughly one quarter of them are, to one degree or another, endangered. A handful, including the great white shark, may ultimately face total biological extinction, meaning they will go the way of the dodo and vanish from the face of the earth.

Sharks' own biology is among their biggest problems. Most species are slow-growing. They breed relatively late in life – white sharks aren't ready to breed until they're at least 12 years old – and they produce very few young. (Some species produce dozens, but the offspring have been known to eat one another in utero.) And these days, living for 12 years is an increasingly rare accomplishment for a shark. Once depleted, shark populations take years to recover, and with pressure on them always increasing, most simply don't. According to a report from the Ocean Conservancy, "There is no evidence of any white shark population recovery, even in areas where the species has been protected for many years."

The shark-finning industry was once limited to Asia, but demand has caused it to spread all over the world, from Australia to Burma to South and Central America. I've dived in wildlife preserves off the coasts of Mexico, Ecuador, and Costa Rica and seen the bottom littered with the corpses of finless sharks. I've seen boats full of poachers finning sharks with no concern for who was watching, and no wonder: When we reported them to the local authorities, we were told to mind our own business.

Sharks have never been very high on humans' lists of priorities, and the reasons are obvious. Unlike marine mammals such as dolphins, which nurse their young and chatter among themselves and appear sweet and charming and very . . . well . . . human, sharks have always had a bad rap. They look mean, and they have a reputation for killing people. It's hard to build a constituency for an animal that may decide to eat you.

On another level, popular ignorance about sharks has been a reflection of our stupendous ignorance about the ocean world. More than 70 percent of the planet is covered in water; more than 95 percent of all the living things on earth live in the ocean; there are mountains under the sea taller than Mount Everest and canyons miles deeper than any on land. And yet we persist in ignoring the oceans in favor of exploring the moon and Mars. We have studied less than 5 percent of our water planet, and we've actually visited less than 1 percent of that 5 percent.

It's no wonder we haven't found the time or the interest to learn much about sharks. But over the past few months there have been a couple of very positive developments. In October of 2004, after years of wrangling, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed great white sharks on its Appendix II list, which prohibits trade unless a country can demonstrate that it won't be detrimental to the species. In the case of great whites, which are valued for fins, jaws, skin, and meat, such proof is impossible. The practical effect of the listing will be difficult to assess, but its symbolic effect is important: It shows that the international community at last recognizes that certain species of shark are in danger and, more significantly, are worth saving.

A month later, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) banned all shark finning. No one knows if the ban will be enforceable, but at least it's on the books.

Certainly the public's attitude toward sharks has changed over the years, from hostility in the old days, to fascination during the 'Jaws' craze in the 1970s, to interest and, evidently, growing affection nowadays. When a 15-foot female white shark was marooned in a pond in Massachusetts after a storm last fall, the public was galvanized – not to harpoon her, as would have been the cry years ago, but to save her. The drama was big news across the country for a week, until wildlife officers finally found a way to coax her over a shallow bar to freedom.

And when a very young white shark, only four feet long and weighing 60 pounds, was saved from a California fisherman's net and taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium last August, attendance at the aquarium increased 50 percent overnight. At first officials feared that she would refuse to eat or would harm herself by blundering into the sides of the million-gallon tank, but she has thrived. People have come from all over the world to see her, and their faces and their questions express awe, rapture, and affection.

I like to think that after thousands of years and hundreds of generations of fearing sharks and hating them and wanting to kill them, perhaps we're beginning to appreciate them for the magnificent animals they are. As Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, whether we know it or not, we humans have a profound emotional stake in the continued existence of sharks.

"We don't just fear our predators," he wrote, "we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and to chatter endlessly about them, because fascination breeds preparedness and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters."