Despite popular perceptions of sharks as invincible, shark populations around the world are declining because of overfishing, habitat destruction and other human activities. Of the 350 or so species of sharks, 79 are imperiled, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Great white sharks are top predators in the sea but they're in grave danger of being depleted.
While over 100 nations fish for sharks, only a handful have enacted regulations to protect them. Most white shark research and conservation groups are located in places where the population of white sharks is highestoff California, South Africa and Australia. These regions, as well as U.S. waters off the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, have laws that protect white sharks from either harassment or killing and the sale of body parts.
In October 2004, white sharks gained new protection in a global wildlife treaty approved by the U.N.-affiliated Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species (CITES). The 166 member countries in CITES approved regulations requiring a controlled system of permits for all international trade in
white shark parts and products. Under the new regulations, trade is closely monitored, and may be banned altogether if white shark numbers keep fading.
Shark finning, the practice of cutting fins from a living shark and then tossing its body back into the ocean, is another threat. Millions of sharks worldwide are killed for fins each year. Fortunately, states and countries worldwide are banning this practice. In 2011, an Aquarium-sponsored bill passed with tremendous public support, banning the trade of shark fins in California.
Small in numbers, slow to reproduce and distributed throughout the world, white sharks are vulnerable to exploitation. Their relatively small numbers have been further reduced by fishing to feed the curio trade, by incidental catch in commercial fishing gear that targets other species and by sportfishing. Scientists hope that tagging and other research methods can unlock the mystery of the white shark and assist in global conservation efforts.