The Global Importance of Sharks and How They Are Threatened by Liberalized Trade

By Andrea Fogelsinger

Trade liberalization refers to the reduction of, not the complete eradication of, restrictions and barriers on the exchange of goods and services between nations.[1] Trade liberalization includes reducing or eliminating quota restrictions, as well as, reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers.[2] It has been recognized that there are several consequences of trade liberalization.[3] Among these consequences is the reduction of biodiversity.[4] The overconsumption of various species for food and clothing results in the depletion and imminent extinction of various species.[5] In simple terms, biodiversity is the variety of all forms of life and ecosystems. Biodiversity also includes diversity within and between species and the diversity of ecosystems.[6] But why is biodiversity so important?

While the importance of biodiversity is a very complex topic, the various specific factors and reasons all play into one vital reason that biodiversity is important: every form of life on earth is a part of interdependent ecological systems.[7] Humans depend on the interaction of all of the other species to ensure the continued existence of humanity.[8] These life forms interact to perform natural process that are essential to humans, including: cycling oxygen, decomposing waste, water purifying, stabilization of climate, and many others.[9] Without these necessary process provided by the diversity of all life, the earth could not maintain its habitable state. Even the loss of a single species could have a profound and irreversible impact on the environment.

Sharks are important to biodiversity because sharks are apex predators. Apex predators are very important to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit.[10] An apex predator is a predator at the top of a food chain.[11] These animals typically are not preyed upon by other animals.[12] Apex predators help to balance ecosystems. One way that large carnivores, like sharks, help to balance ecosystems is by helping to ensure that there are appropriate amounts of habitats for other species by keeping the populations of their prey in balance.[13] Apex predators are not preyed upon by other animals so their growth and reproduction rates tend to be slower. For example, sharks can take more than a decade to reach maturity and often produce less than twelve young per year.[14] This slow population growth rate makes apex predators vulnerable to outside threats.[15]

Sharks are one of the main apex predators in the ocean.[16] Sharks help maintain seagrass beds and coral reefs by balancing the population of the species that use these resources, protecting the health of ocean ecosystems.[17] As is typical of apex predators, sharks have a varied diet.[18] This allows the sharks to change which species they prey on when the population of a species gets low.[19] This ability to change its prey, depending on the populations of different prey, protect prey species from becoming extinct.[20] Thus, sharks help to balance the populations of species in the ocean.

The ability of sharks to help maintain ocean ecosystems is not only limited to eating select species. Sharks are also able to prevent a species from monopolizing a resource in the ocean that may be limited.[21] Species that are the prey of sharks will alter their activity level and use of habitat based on the location of sharks.[22] By influencing where prey species live and eat, sharks are able to protect certain food sources and habitats from being overused and depleted by the prey species, which further protects biodiversity.[23] Sharks, as apex predators, have the ability to impact the entire structure of a community in the ocean.[24] Sharks also provide food for scavenger species by leaving carcasses of their prey in an ecosystem.[25] Additionally, sharks help to eliminate sick individuals from prey populations, protecting these populations from the threat of diseases.[26]

In the recent decades, the international trade in sharks has seen a significant increase.[27] This increase in international shark trade has resulted in the dramatic eighty-nine percent decrease in some shark species populations.[28]  Sadly, few species of sharks that are targeted for their meat and fins are protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) or the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and international trade in these species continues to rise to dangerous levels.[29] The slow growth and reproduction rates of sharks makes the population particularly vulnerable to threats.[30] The lack of trade regulations in the amount of sharks that can be taken and what species can be targeted will result in the inevitable depletion of shark population around the world. If international catch and trade of sharks continues at the current rates, the population of sharks will continue to decrease and the oceans will be at risk of losing perhaps the most valuable apex predator the ocean has.[31]

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[1] Investopedia, Trade Liberalization, Dictionary, (last updated 2015).

[2] Economics Help, Trade Liberalisation, Glossary Terms, (Nov. 2012),

[3] Chelsea L. Braun, Mental Health, Psychology, and the Law Symposium: Comment: Responsibility for the Rose: Environmental Policy and the WTO, 82 UMKC L. Rev. 537, 547 (2014).

[4] Id.

[5] See David Hunter, James Salzman & Durwood Zaelke, International Environmental Law and Policy 9, 1004, 1226-27 (Robert C. Clark et al. eds., 5th ed. 2015)

[6] Id. at 996.

[7] Id. at 9.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See Roger Di Silvestro, Apex Predators are Taking It to the Top, National Wildlife Federation (Mar. 11, 2013)

[11] Merriam-Webster Dictionary,, (last updated 2015).

[12] Id.

[13] Hunter et al., supra note 5, at 997.

[14] Michael Heithaus, Threats to Sharks Threaten Entire Ecosystems, Inside Science (Aug. 6, 2013, 8:30AM)

[15] Hunter et al., supra note 5, at 1112.

[16] E. Griffin, K.L. Miller, B. Freitas & M. Hirshfield, Predators as Prey: Why Health Oceans Need Sharks, Oceana 1 (July 2008),

[17] Id. at intro.

[18] Id. at 1.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Holly Edwards, Comment: When Predators Become Prey: The Need for International Shark Conservation, 12 Ocean & Coastal L.J. 305, 306 (2007).

[28] Id.

[29] See CITES, Checklist of CITES Species, CITES (last visited Aug. 11, 2016); CMS, Species, CMS (June, 5, 2015),

[30] Heithaus, supra note 14.

[31] Edwards, supra note 27, at 319.