Shark population continues to decline as unregulated fishing increases to meet the high demand for fins. A new analysis finds that the international plan, which was approved by members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) in 2001, has yet to be fully implemented.

Almost 73 millions sharks are killed every year across the world for their fins, which are used as an ingredient in shark fin soup, a popular dish in many East Asian countries.

There are more than 490 species of shark, like Great White shark, Whale shark, Blue shark, Basking shark, and Hammerhead shark. Sharks belong to the Chondrichthyes class, the Elasmobranchii subclass and the Selachimorpha superorder, according to WildAid.

Three notable species of shark are classified as endangered: the Great White, Whale and Basking sharks, according to WildAid. However, all shark species are at risk for population decline due to over-fishing to supply the global demand for shark products.

Sharks caught as by-catch are often 'finned', and the rest of their bodies are subsequently thrown overboard while the shark is still alive. Shark fin, meat, liver and other parts are sold for food or as ingredients in health and beauty assistance. Shark fins however, are the most popular, fetching up to $564 per kilo. The vast majority of all fins are shipped to Asia where the fins, made into shark fin soup, are considered a delicacy and a status symbol.

Since shark fins make up only 1 percent to 5 percent of the animal's bodyweight, 95 percent to 99 percent of the shark is often wasted. Shark fin soup was once an expensive luxury for the privileged few in southern China, but now it is mass-produced and has become routine at weddings, banquets and business dinners for millions of people around the world, according to WildAid.

Sharks play a critical role in the ocean environment. Where shark populations are healthy, marine life thrives; but where they have been overfished, ecosystems fall out of balance. Shark-catching countries and entities must stand by their commitments and act now to conserve and protect these animals, said Jill Hepp, Global Shark Conservation manager for the Pew Environment Group.

There is little evidence that the plan has contributed significantly to improved conservation and management of sharks, as 30 percent of all shark species is now threatened or near threatened with extinction.

According to the review of the new analysis The Future of Sharks: A Review of Action and Inaction by the UN FAO, only 13 of the top 20 shark-catching countries and other entities have developed national plans of action to protect sharks -- one of the primary recommendations from 2001 -- and it remains unclear how those plans have been implemented or if they have been effective.

The top 20 shark catchers account for more than 640,000 tonnes annually, nearly 80 percent of the total shark catch reported globally. The top 10, in order, are: Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, United States, Japan, and Malaysia.

Based on their own reported data, Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan account for more than 35 percent of all sharks taken annually.

The new analysis uses fisheries information provided to UN FAO to identify the top 20 shark-catching countries and other entities, and then assesses whether they have taken the conservation measures agreed in 2001.

The analysis, produced by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group, was released ahead of a crucial meeting of the UNFAO's Committee on Fisheries (COFI), taking place January 31 through February 4 in Rome, Italy. The two organizations recommend that COFI perform a comprehensive review into the actions being undertaken to manage fisheries in which sharks are taken.

The fate of the world's sharks is in the hands of the Top 20 shark catchers, most of which have failed to demonstrate what, if anything, they are doing to save these imperiled species. They need to take action to stop the decline in shark populations and help ensure that the list of species threatened by overfishing does not continue to grow, said Glenn Sant, TRAFFIC's Global Marine Programme Leader.

International Plan of Action

The International Plan of Action, according to UN FAO, applies to countries where sharks are caught by their own or foreign vessels as well as to countries whose vessels catch sharks on high seas.

States should adopt a national plan of action for conservation and management of shark stocks (Shark-plan) if their vessels conduct directed fisheries for sharks or if their vessels regularly catch sharks in non-directed fisheries. Each State is responsible for developing, implementing and monitoring its Shark-plan.

The Shark-plan should aim at achieving the following:

-- Ensure that shark catches from directed and non-directed fisheries are sustainable.

-- Assess threats to shark populations, determine and protect critical habitats and implement harvesting strategies consistent with the principles of biological sustainability and rational long-term economic use.

-- Identify, and provide special attention to, vulnerable or threatened shark stocks.

-- Improve and develop frameworks for establishing and co-ordinating effective consultation involving all stakeholders in research, management and educational initiatives within, and between, States.

-- Minimize incidental catches of sharks that are not used.

-- Contribute to the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function.

-- Minimize waste and discards from shark catches in accordance with article 7.2.2.(g) of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (for example, requiring the use of sharks whose fins have been removed).

-- Facilitate improved species-specific catch and landings data and monitoring of shark catches.

-- Facilitate the identification and reporting of species-specific biological and trade data.