Marine ecosystems are suffering severe depletion of apex predators worldwide; shark declines are principally due to conservative life-histories and fisheries overexploitation. On coral reefs, sharks are strongly interacting apex predators and play a key role in maintaining healthy reef ecosystems. Despite increasing fishing pressure, reef shark catches are rarely subject to specific limits, with management approaches typically depending upon no-take marine reserves to maintain populations. Here, we reveal that this approach is failing by documenting an ongoing collapse in two of the most abundant reef shark species on the Great Barrier Reef (Australia). We find an order of magnitude fewer sharks on fished reefs compared to no-entry management zones that encompass only 1% of reefs. No-take zones, which are more difficult to enforce than no-entry zones, offer almost no protection for shark populations. Population viability models of whitetip and gray reef sharks project ongoing steep declines in abundance of 7% and 17% per annum, respectively. These findings indicate that current management of no-take areas is inadequate for protecting reef sharks, even in one of the world's most-well-managed reef ecosystems. Further steps are urgently required for protecting this critical functional group from ecological extinction.