They call it the "Jaws" effect. Inspired by the 1975 movie about a great white shark that terrorized a tourist town, legions of fishermen piled into boats and killed thousands of the ocean predators in shark fishing tournaments.
Although most of the tournaments have shut down or gone to catch-and-release, a commercial shark fishing industry arose in their place to serve the Chinese demand for shark-fin soup, a luxury dish comparable to caviar.
Today, about that 345 of 1,044 species of the world's sharks, skates and rays are threatened with extinction, according to an article published in the most recent issue of the journal Science. It also raises the possibility that in a few generations the oceans will lose layers of predators that keep marine ecosystems in balance.
"They're an important part of the web of life," said Jack Musick, emeritus professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who supervised the study. "The larger animals that are apex predators are the force of natural selection. And we owe it to our kids and our grandchildren to leave them the same level of biodiversity that we enjoyed."
Jeff Torode, who operates South Florida Diving Headquarters, said he's noticed a sharp decline in the 20 years or so he's led underwater expeditions.
"You used to be able to see Caribbean reef sharks, you'd see bull sharks, you'd see a hammerhead occasionally, we'd see blacktips in the shallows," he said. "Right now you're lucky if you see a shark in 10 or 20 dives. You see a bull shark once in a while on the deeper wrecks. The only species you will see with any regularity is the nurse shark."
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