Older than dinosaurs and trees, sharks have endured a lot throughout their 450 million years on Earth. They’ve even survived five mass extinctions, including the asteroid that wiped out 75% of life on the planet. But many species of these aquatic apex predators are now in danger of dying out forever.
“Sharks are in crisis globally,” says the WWF. Overfishing (hunting for their meat, fins, and other parts before they can reproduce fast enough) is their biggest threat along with unintentionally getting caught in fishing gear and the effects of climate change.
Of the thousand known species of sharks and rays (sharks’ closest living relatives), over a third of them are at risk of extinction. And since sharks are “indicators of ocean health,” as sharks go, so does the delicate balance of marine ecosystems.
From gathering data to educating the public to advocating for underwater life, many conservation groups are on a mission to protect these prehistoric creatures before they are lost to history. Click here to support their work or keep reading to learn how they’re taking action.
Research is key to conservation. Scientists rely on this information to inform wildlife and habitat management and conservation plans while advocates use data to develop and recommend policy to public officials. This research can also be used for public safety purposes as well as to educate future generations that will inherit the planet.
Often conducted in remote and dangerous environments, shark research requires time and money. But that work is paying off as researchers continually identify new species of sharks, such as those that can walk on the ocean floor and glow in the dark.
These research-oriented organizations are exploring the world’s reefs, seas, coastlines, and oceans to ultimately benefit shark conservation:
- Atlantic White Shark Conservancy – Based on the southern tip of Cape Cod, the conservancy’s main mission is white shark research and education. Offering expeditions to see the animals in their natural habitat, educational Shark Centers open to the public, and youth science programs, the non-profit also runs the Sharktivity app where user-reported shark sightings help researchers learn more about shark travel and behavior and keep sharks and humans safe from each other.
- Beneath the Waves –– Since 2013, Beneath The Waves has used science and technology to promote ocean health and conservation policy. Their threatened species initiative collects research on sharks using tools such as tags, sensors, drones, and satellites to better understand shark biology and movement. The non-profit launched the first long-term study of large-scale shark sanctuaries and discovered deep-sea “hotspots” for sharks in the Caribbean.
- MarAlliance – Headquartered in Houston, MarAlliance conducts research in tropical seas to support wildlife conservation in places such as the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean, and Caribbean Sea. Their work includes identifying potential sites for marine protected areas from fishing, training local fishing communities, and monitoring population levels of threatened marine life, like some species of sharks.
- Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium – Founded in 1955 on Florida’s west coast, Mote Marine Laboratory has been “obsessed” with sharks since their beginning. Today, their Sharks & Rays Conservation Research Program is one of 20 marine research programs studying human and environmental health, sustainable fishing, and animals such as manatees and dolphins. Mote also runs an aquarium equipped with a 135,000-gallon shark tank viewable on a live stream.
- Fins Attached – While the Colorado-based non-profit aims to protect the health of the entire ocean, much of its research focuses on sharks since their position at the top of the marine food chain influences the health of the entire ecosystem. Fins Attached has produced many publications on shark research and allows donors to join some research expeditions, all with conservation and education in mind.
Unfortunately for sharks, NOAA says, “What makes them unique also makes them vulnerable.” Some species of sharks, like great whites, are slow to reproduce: they can take decades to reach breeding age, have pregnancies last up to three years, and produce small litters. And warming waters are shifting some of their migration patterns beyond protected areas, putting them at risk of fishing.
All of it is hurting their numbers. A 2021 report showed over the last 50 years, global shark and ray populations have fallen more than 70%.
“If we don’t do anything, it will be too late,” says biologist and study co-author Nick Dulvy. “It’s much worse than other animal populations we’ve been looking at,” adding the downward trend for sharks is even steeper than those for elephants and rhinos, which are “iconic in driving conservation efforts on land.”
While the study found we may approach a “point of no return,” there are encouraging signs that conservation efforts are starting to work for white sharks and hammerheads thanks to government bans, policies, and quotas.
There is still a long way to go, however, so many conservation organizations like these are dedicated to rescuing and protecting these vulnerable creatures:
- PADI AWARE Foundation – The world’s largest scuba diver training organization, PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) officially launched its global conservation charity in 1992 to promote cleaner and healthier oceans. One of its goals is to reduce the amount of sharks and rays threatened with extinction by 25%. Data collected from its new Global Shark & Ray Census will help with ongoing and future efforts to protect vulnerable species.
- Galápagos Conservancy – Some 600 miles west of Ecuador lies one of the world’s most famous and unique ecosystems: the Galápagos Islands. As the only American non-profit solely devoted to protecting and restoring the archipelago, the Galápagos Conservancy is working to rewild and save endangered species, including sharks. The organization is helping research breeding areas of scalloped hammerhead and blacktip sharks and supporting efforts to learn more about the high concentration of whale sharks that congregate in the Galápagos Marine Reserve.
- Shark Advocates International — Founded by veteran shark advocate Sonja Fordham, Shark Advocates International is a project of The Ocean Foundation. The non-profit promotes science-based shark conservation policies such as fishing limits, species-specific protections, and finning bans at the local, national, and international level.
- WildAid — Known for its high-profile media campaigns, WildAid fights the global illegal wildlife trade by changing consumer attitudes through awareness of the multi-billion dollar industry. Its anti-shark fin campaign in China featuring NBA legend Yao Ming has been especially successful, seeing an 80% drop in shark fin consumption in the country. Through its WildAid Marine Program, the non-profit also helps protect sharks around the world, including the Galápagos Marine Reserve, home to the densest shark population on Earth.
- Wildlife Conservation Society – Founded in 1895, the Wildlife Conservation Society is one of the oldest organizations of its kind. In addition to operating world-famous parks like the Bronx Zoo, WCS runs long-term wildlife protection projects across the world, including an initiative to develop and implement policies to help protect sharks from overfishing in low-income, ocean-dependent countries.
- WWF – With five million supporters, projects in nearly 100 countries, and one iconic panda logo, the World Wildlife Fund (known outside of the US and Canada as the World Wild Fund for Nature) is one of the largest and most well-known conservation organizations on the planet. WWF has partnered with the international wildlife trade monitoring non-profit TRAFFIC for a joint shark conservation program with local projects all over the world.
It’s not just sharks that are vulnerable to deteriorating conditions in the water – the entire marine ecosystem is at risk due to unsustainable fishing practices, climate change, and pollution, which has reached “unprecedented” levels within the last 20 years.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest concentration of ocean plastic in the world, is now twice the size of Texas. Scientists are seeing the highest ocean surface temperatures on record this year along with a “totally unprecedented” marine heat wave in the north Atlantic Ocean. Researchers warn all coral reefs on Earth could die out by the end of the century.
Experts say it’s not too late to reverse course, but the window to do so is shrinking. A report in the journal Nature found marine wildlife to be “remarkably resilient” and could recover by 2050 with urgent and widespread conservation interventions.
Organizations like the ones below are committed to protecting the health of the entire ocean and all life within it:
- Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute – Started in 1963 by one of the founders of SeaWorld, HSWRI’s mission is to conserve and renew marine life for a healthier planet. Although the non-profit institute exists as an independent entity, it still collaborates with the for-profit park on scientific research and both act as “first responders” to rescue marine wildlife.
- Ocean Conservancy – The Ocean Conservancy’s roots date back to the 1970’s when it campaigned to save whales and other vulnerable animals. It later expanded its mission to protect the broader ecosystem, holding its first International Coastal Cleanup in 1986, and since then has collected more than 348 million pounds of trash with the help of 17 million volunteers. Other current programs include advancing ocean justice, addressing climate change, advocating for ocean health funding and legislation, and promoting sustainable fishing.
- The Ocean Foundation – Working in 45 countries across six continents, the community foundation operates conservation initiatives focused on climate resilience, ocean literacy and leadership, ocean science equity, and sustainable plastic production and consumption. The non-profit also offers training, research and development, and support for coastal communities.
- WILDCOAST – Known as COSTASALVAJE in Spanish, WILDCOAST’s work spans 38 million acres primarily across California and Mexico to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. The non-profit works to protect shorelines, coastal wetlands, mangrove forests, and coral reefs and establish protected areas for threatened sea turtles and gray whales.
- Wild Oceans – Focused on the future of sustainable fishing, Tampa-based Wild Oceans is the oldest non-profit in America dedicated to marine fisheries management. The non-profit’s Large Marine Fish Conservation initiative focuses on conserving big fish such as marlin, swordfish, tuna, and sharks – “the lions, tigers and wolves of the sea” – to keep the entire ocean food web and habitat healthy.
Click here to support these organization’s work and help save sharks before it’s too late.