Pelagic sharks

Pelagic or oceanic sharks live in the open waters of the seas and oceans. They include the largest of all fish. They inhabit temperate and tropical waters and many are migratory. All sharks are predators. In many cases they are at the apex of their food chains and are therefore an important indicator species for marine ecosystems as a whole.
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A Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) off the coast of California, United States.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

Key Facts

  • Length

    up to 12m

  • Weight

    up to 12,000 kg

  • Speed

    can reach 30-40 mph

  • Leaping

    can leap up to 9m above the surface

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Fast, efficient predators under threat

Many pelagic sharks are the top predators in their range, and have few natural predators when fully grown. Pelagic sharks are carnivorous and eat fish, including other sharks on occasion, turtles, seals and penguins.

The 3 largest species of pelagic shark – the whale shark, the basking shark and the megamouth shark are all filter feeders and eat mainly plankton.

Reproduction

Most pelagic sharks are viviparous - the eggs are fertilized inside the female's body, and live 'pups' are hatched. Reproduction rates are very low, with as few as 2-3 pups born every 13 months or so in some species. Pelagic sharks are slow to reach maturity, often taking as long as 10 years or more.

Threatened Pelagic shark species:

 / ©: Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus).
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon

Priority Species

Pelagic sharks are a WWF priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. And so we are working to ensure such species can live and thrive in their natural habitats.

What are the main threats to pelagic sharks?

Overfishing and bycatch

Because sharks do not reproduce as fast as other fish, their numbers can easily be reduced by overfishing. Pelagic sharks are caught in longline pelagic fisheries for tuna and swordfish.

There is insufficient data on many of the species of pelagic sharks caught as bycatch, as they are often discarded by fisheries.

High demand for shark fin soup


Pelagic shark populations are also threatened by demand for shark fin soup, where the fin is removed and the remainder of the body again discarded.

It is estimated that over 100 million sharks are killed annually, with around 10 million of those being blue sharks killed for their fins only.

Sport fishing

Species such as the great white shark, which has been unfairly demonised, is often caught by sport fishers and its teeth and jaws are sold as trophies or curios.

Habitat loss

Some pelagic sharks species are losing important feeing and breeding habitats to development, pollution and overfishing.

Thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) caught in gill net, Gulf of California, Mexico. / ©: Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
Thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) caught in gill net, Gulf of California, Mexico.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Specialised shop selling sharks' fins, Beijing, China.
© WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther

What is WWF doing?


WWF promotes smart fishing to reduce bycatch and the unnecessary annual loss of millions of fish. It argues for fishing bans in areas where stocks have been seriously depleted, or in areas which are nursing grounds for significant species. It also holds an annual Smart Gear Competition designed to encourage the introduction of efficient and innovative fishing gear.

In many areas, the economic value of shark meat and products is less than could be earned from a living shark ecotourism enterprise. WWF works with local communities to develop ecotourism projects centred around pelagic sharks including whale sharks.

At the 2010 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), WWF lobbied hard to have 6 shark species added to CITES Appendix II. The porbeagle (a pelagic shark) was successfully added to the list, unfortunatley the other 5 were not listed. Read more.

Some WWF projects that support this work:

Logging details from Whale shark satellite tag, Philippines
. / ©: Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
WWF Philippines Donsol Research Coordinator Elson Aca writing down details of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) satellite tag into his slate.
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon

Make a donation

How you can help

  • Buy seafood that has been sustainably caught. You can tell because it will have a certification label on the packaging such as the Marine Stewardship Council certification.
     
  • Adopt a great white shark from the WWF-US Online Gift Center.
     
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Did you know?

    • Blue sharks are found off the coast of every continent except Antarctica.
    • The whale shark is the largest of all fish and can grow up to 12m long and weigh up to 12,000kg. However, although its jaws can be over 1m in width, it is armed with the tiniest of teeth.
    • The fastest shark is the shortfin mako shark which can reach speeds of 30-40mph. It can also leap up to 9m above the surface of the water.
    • The megamouth shark is the rarest and most mysterious pelagic shark species. It was only discovered in 1976, and has only been seen 41 times since.
    • The tiger shark is known as the 'dustbin' of the oceans and is famous for devouring anything it comes across, regardless of nutritional value. This might include licence plates, tyres or even a suit of armour!
    • Porbeagle sharks are unique in that they have been known to play tag with other porbeagles, pass seaweed to each other, and toss driftwood out of the water in a manner similar to dolphins.
    • Most oceanic sharks must keep swimming forwards to force seawater through their open mouths and over their gills to breathe - otherwise they would suffocate.

Definitions

  • Pelagic
    The pelagic zone is the open water as opposed to near the shore, or reef or the bottom of a body of water.
    Benthic
    The benthic zone is the bottom of an ocean or lake, including the top soil layer. It starts at the shallow shoreline and extends out to the deepest areas of a water body. 

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