Millions of rare, deep-sea sharks are killed each year to support a multimillion-dollar industry—but which one might surprise you.
In remote regions around the world, fishermen pull sharks out of the deep and harvest their livers. Shark livers contain an oil, known as squalene, that’s widespread in sunscreen, lipstick, foundation, lotion, and many other cosmetics.
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High in fatty acids and antioxidants, squalene is a key moisturizing agent, and its source varies by brand. Squalene can be extracted from olives, wheat germ, and other plants, but sourcing it from sharks is easier and significantly cheaper, experts say. (Related: “Slaughterhouse Said to Process ‘Horrifying’ Number of Whale Sharks Annually.”)
Although shark-sourced squalene can be found in other types of consumer goods, such as vitamin supplements and vaccines, as much as 90 percent of shark squalene produced is sold to cosmetic producers, according to a 2012 report published the French ocean conservation nonprofit BLOOM.
In response to heightened public concern for shark conservation, many corporations in the western world have made the switch to plant-based squalane, even if it’s about 30 percent more expensive to produce.
Andriana Matsangou, a spokesperson for the British-Dutch company Unilever, says the company “sources squalene entirely from vegetable sources to avoid sourcing it from shark species.”
Similarly, L’Oréal spokesperson Alexander Habib claimed the French company stopped using squalene from sharks 10 years ago, and that since switching over L’Oréal has “implemented strict measures to control the origin of squalane from of our suppliers.”
But the global cosmetics industry is still largely supplied by shark squalene—and how these fisheries have impacted the balance of life in the lowest layer of the ocean is unknown, says David Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory.
“The problem is we don't really know what's going on down there,” says Ebert. “A lot of these fisheries operate in parts of the world that are kind of off the radar.” (Related: “The Push to Stop the Killing of Sharks for Their Fins.”)
Sharks are already under pressure for seafood: Around a hundred million sharks from a variety of species may be killed annually, mostly to feed China’s demand for shark fin soup.
In Deep Trouble
Squalene fishermen target deep-sea sharks—such as gulper sharks, basking sharks, and tope sharks—in particular because they have extra oily livers that help them stay buoyant under the immense pressure of the deep, Ebert notes.
These animals are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because most grow slowly and reproduce infrequently, he adds. (Watch: “How Much Do We Know About the Deep Sea?”)
Squalene fisheries, which operate primarily in the Indian, southeastern Atlantic, and western Pacific oceans, are also chronically unregulated, according to a 2011 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Due to the availability of other sources, “the demand for squalene is probably not as big as it was 50 years ago, but I don't think anybody's really monitoring what's going on,” says Ebert.
Ocean conservation organizations such as Oceana have called for increased regulation of squalene fisheries, as well as heightened protections for deep-sea sharks. In 2006, the European Union imposed strict limits on deep-sea shark fishing in the northeastern Atlantic, but few countries have followed suit.
Ebert, who has discovered more than 20 new deep-sea shark species over the last two decades, fears that without more protection, “we could create a situation where we’re losing sharks species without realizing it.”