Since the release of Jaws, sharks are unanimously seen as a symbol for human fear. A shadow of their long lanky bodies with pointed fins and snout are enough to send shivers down the spine. And this comes as no surprise — when humans first set out to sea, shark encounters were extremely fearful, becoming a mainstay of urban lore.
Yet we’re here to tell you that sharks have more to fear of us than we do of them. Every year, humans overfish the ocean’s top predator for their meat, fins and gills. Many are threatened with extinction, jeopardizing the health of our ocean’s ecosystem, food security in developing nations, and even ecotourism.
Let’s take a dive into the world of shark created goods.
At a Glance
There are few animals that incite fear like the great predator of the sea, and the media has definitely exacerbated people's fear. Try replacing the "shark" in "Shark Tank" or "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" with "butterfly". It definitely doesn't have the same effect.
But over the last 50 years, humans have started to overhunt the hungry beast. Shark populations have plummeted over 70% since 1970, with scientists calculating up to 273 million sharks killed every year. Much of this problem comes from fishing being done illegally, often far away from country jurisdiction.
Now why would humans want to hunt for sharks? To name a few: shark fins, shark liver oil, shark cartilage, shark meat, and shark skin. Many of these parts are found in common products you may own today including sunscreen, lotion, makeup, medicine and even energy drinks.
And while many of these parts may be useful, sharks can’t reproduce fast enough at the rate they are being fished, making their body parts even more lucrative, driving prices up and causing even more overfishing.
If you recall from biology class, there are 2 kinds of species: r-selection and k-selection. Species that are r-selected (tend to be prey) tend to have reproductive abilities in a couple years and can bear a ton of offspring, who have high mortality rates. Sharks are k-selected species (and notorious predators), who take over 10 years to bear only a couple offspring.
Products with Shark Today
Today, over hundreds of products contain some shark inside them. Shark fins are the most common form of shark usage, long used as a form of status in Asian countries to indicate wealth and power.
However, the scariest ones are the products that don’t state if they are from sharks or not. Shark liver oil, or more commonly known as squalene, is a common moisturizing ingredient (when transformed into squalane through hydrogenation) found inside beauty products that can also be collected from olive oil and sugar canes. Around six million sharks are killed a year to meet the needs of squalene alone.
Yet, most beauty products like moisturizer don’t list shark oil liver. They just state squalene among their ingredients, rarely indicating if it came from sharks or plants. Some researchers shared that least one in five products contain shark squalene.
Here’s a list of other products that often have shark in them:
Beauty: Skin lotion, makeup, deodorant, lip balm, sunscreen, or anything with a spreadable and creamy texture
Medicine: Medicinal creams, supplements, medicines with gill rakers, medicine for eczema, fevers, asthma, vaccines (some for COVID-19 vaccines in development)
Food: Imitation crab sticks, rock salmon, whitefish fillets, pet food, garden fertilizer
Environmental & Animal Cost
Sharks play a crucial role in the ocean’s ecosystem. As apex predators, they maintain other fish populations below them, indicating and responding to the ocean’s health. Like others at the top of the food chain, sharks shape prey’s spatial habitat, indirectly maintaining coral reefs and seagrass habitats. Their decline has led to a decline in ocean habitats, as larger predatory fish, like groupers, grow in population and gobble up the herbivores in the reef system.
Sharks also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere: they help prevent overgrazing of seagrass meadows, allowing the seagrass to absorb carbon dioxide. Sharks themselves are also able to store carbon in their bodies. The depletion of large animals in the ocean such as sharks and whales has significantly reduced the whole ocean's capability of storing carbon by millions of tons.
Sharks also reproduce considerably slower compared to the rest of marine life. Their sexual maturity is only reached after 10 or more years, with some up to as old as 40 years, before producing very few offspring.
The drop in shark populations come from two sources: overfishing and environment contamination.
Shark fishing in the U.S. occurs at both the recreational and commercial level, with different regulations for both. We’ll highlight the main processes for commercial fishing:
Longlining: Tough fishing lines with hooks are set into the sea during feeding time.
Drift gillnetting: Large nets are draped out into the water, clipped with floats.
Strike netting: Several gill nets attached to boats encircle schools of sharks.
Caught sharks first have their fins cut off before being removed from their traps. Because shark fins alone can often fetch hundreds of dollars a pound, most fishermen discard the rest of the body into the same, wasting 95% of the animal. These nets and lines can stretch for hundreds of miles, with tens and thousands of hooks and as fishing trips are done quite often, with trips often returning back at least hundreds of thousands of shark fins.
Since recreational fishing focuses on trophy sharks, these sharks are often treated the same way — de-finned and then dumped back into the water. This is not to mention the cruel manner in which these sharks are handled, left to slowly die under water due to blood loss, suffocation or being eaten by other predators.
With little to no regulation in most countries, even the bans that do exist have little enforcement. Most go through underground trade, making it hard for laws to keep up.
As we discussed in our shampoo edition, microplastics are growing dramatically in the ocean as the aggregation of pollution continues, with some seawater containing 7x more plastic than zooplankton. Because sharks are at the top of the food chain, their bioaccumulation of toxins will be much higher than other ocean life, leading to their decline.
Additional increases in climate change and other forms of pollution add to the destruction of estuaries, the habitat where sharks grow and lay their young. Urban development along the coast lines alter the landscape, often indirectly causing topographical changes for these living environments, making it hard for the shark population to redevelop.
All of this irresponsible and unsustainable fishing practices will come back to bite us in the butt. The decline in the shark population will indirectly affect our economy.
As we mentioned before, sharks manage the populations underneath them in the food chain and this could lead to fisheries that maintain shellfish and other smaller fish to see a decline due to more predators that sharks may have managed. We do want to mention that the initial fear that overfishing of sharks may have been causing the decline of oysters and other shellfish, but this decline has been linked instead to climate change and rising temperatures.
For smaller countries, sharks can also play a role in ecotourism, with live tours of sharks in the sea resulting in hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars over its lifetime, compared to the initial profit made from selling shark fins. This is specific to certain types of shark species.
The Future of Shark Goods
While there has been a lot of destruction to the ocean, and to sharks, the future is bright as more countries are participating in enforcing regulations on shark finning and companies are transitioning to using plant based squalane rather than shark derived squalane.
Squalane, for example, has become a very "buzzy" ingredient over the past couple years, as consumers are turning to skincare with ingredients that have scientific value and are effective. And with the rise of vegan beauty, estimated to reach $20.8B by 2025, plant based squalane is here to stay. With consumers becoming more aware of the environmental and animal welfare, lots of brands have switched over to plant based squalene including Ponds, Dove, Sunsilk, Vaseline, L’Oréal, Unilever, and Lancome.
Biotech companies like Amyris are also working on creating a plant-based squalene by fermenting sugarcane, stating they could reduce the cost of squalene by half, even cheaper than shark squalene. They are also working with Infectious Disease Research Institute to provide this for the vaccine industry and beauty products. Other groups to check out include Wilshire Tech, SynShark, and more listed here.
Management measures to regulate fishing also need to be catered for different cultures and countries. Bans in China and awareness campaigns have reported to decrease consumption of shark fin soup by about 80%. Some places like in California in 2011 actually pushed suppliers to go underground. Fines and prison sentences in the U.S. do little to deter people today (a fine in Texas can be less than a dollar) and require more awareness and campaigns.
To help with future conservation actions, Aaron MacNeil, a reef ecologist at Dalhousie University, built a data visualization model to compare the relative abundance of reef sharks compared to the population of people nearby and markets where shark fins may be sold. As you might have guessed, areas with the most abundant sharks are those with more protected areas with bans on shark fisheries. On a global scale, many countries including Mozambique, Canada, and New Zealand have made efforts to ban shark finning in some way shape or form.
Some people are even pivoting to making imitation shark fin soup!
Alternatives to Consider
Since shark ends up in a variety of different products, here are some skincare brands that are shark free (and specifically mention they use plant derived squalane):
We want to call out that we are not beauty experts, so we highly recommend you look further into these ingredients through the links we provided. Send us recommendations that we can include on this list!
What You Can Do
Have we bitten off more than we can chew?
Learn more about fishing regulations for sharks 🦈 in your area. Adding more laws may drive more underground trading, so education and spreading awareness about these laws are a good place to start.
If squalene or squalane is listed – look for the words ‘100% plant-derived 🌱,’ or ‘vegetable based’ or “vegetable origins” to confirm your goods haven't been made from sharks.
Reduce your seafood 🐟 consumption – sometimes sharks are killed as a byproduct of commercial fishing and get caught in fishing nets. Moderation is key.
Pick up after yourself – one of the biggest threats to sharks is trash 🗑️ that ends up in the ocean that sharks consume, causing illness or death.
Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.