Historical abundances of many large marine vertebrates were tremendously greater than today. However, while pelagic sharks are known to have declined rapidly in the northwest Atlantic in recent years, there, as elsewhere, little is known about the former natural abundances of these species. Here, we compare initial (1950s) and recent (late-1990s) standardized catch rates of pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, the area where methods of exploitation between these two periods were most comparable. We estimate that oceanic whitetip and silky sharks, formerly the most commonly caught shark species, have declined by over 99 and 90%, respectively. That the former prevalence of oceanic whitetip sharks in this ecosystem is unrecognized today is clear evidence of shifting baselines. Our analysis provides the missing baseline for pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico that is needed for the rational management and restoration of these species.