Today, 14th July is known as ‘Shark Awareness Day’. This is not a day to shout out to the world about the dangers of sharks, it is intended to inform people of these stunning creatures and their battle for survival against possibly the most savage predator the planet has ever known, us! Sharks have been living on this planet for more than 400 million years. That makes them one of the oldest vertebrates on the planet, they even pre-date the dinosaurs by around 200 million years, and they have survived 5 mass extinctions! Over this impressive span of time they have become top apex predators, but the future of their existence is unknown. The population of some species have declined by approximately 90% due to the practice of shark finning and commercial fisheries accidentally catching them on their hooks and nets. Negative media coverage and Hollywood portrayals have resulted in most of the world’s population living in fear of these majestic creatures.
Sharks are long lived creatures. Although their average life span varies depending on the species, most tend to live for 20-30 years. Some species like the whale shark and the spiny dogfish are believed to live longer than 100 years. Because of their long lifespans, they take a long time to reach sexual maturity. Most species cannot usually start breeding until the age of 12-15, some take even longer. When you combine that with the fact that most shark species typically only birth one or two pups at a time, it is easy to see why recovery may take a long time. 74 species are currently listed as threatened, and 11 species are considered critically endangered.
Shark Finning: Between 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed annually by the practice of ‘Finning’. This is a brutal, cruel practice that involves cutting the fins off a live shark, and then throwing the disabled creature back into the water, where it is left to either bleed to death or drown. Although shark meat has some value, the fins are by far the most valuable part, and the lightest. The fins are then used to make shark fin soup, which is a traditional Asian delicacy. There is also a myth (proven to be false) that sharks cannot get cancer, so the fins are also ground up and made into alternative medicines, which are sold to misinformed people all over the world.
In many parts of the world, this practice is illegal, but the money involved in the trade allows it to continue, even in national park areas such as Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, and Costa Rica’s Cocos Island. At least 50% (possibly up to 80%) of the world’s shark fin trade is handled in Hong Kong, but they are supplied from all over the world. Although shark finning is outlawed by the European Union, shark fishing is not, and a 1/3 of Hong Kong’s fins are legally supplied by Europe, with Spain being the largest supplier, shipping well over 2000 metric tons (sometimes up to 5000) annually. Despite worldwide efforts to stop the shark fin trade, it is still going strong. The fins of the largest species, the Whale Shark and the Basking Shark are regarded as trophies, often fetching between $10,000 to $20,000 a fin.
Bycatch: Up to an estimated 50 million sharks are caught a year from bycatch. The term bycatch is used for any species that is unintentionally caught because of poor fishing practises. Long-line fishing is a practise that involves deploying tens, and sometimes hundreds of miles of fishing lines with thousands of baited hook, usually to catch tuna. Sharks are not the only creatures effected by this method of fishing, turtles, seabirds, and whatever else goes for the bait get trapped and often die before the fishermen reel the line in. Long-lining is the worst offender for the bycatch of sharks, but deep sea trawling also is responsible for some bycatch.
The bycatch of sharks used to just be considered a nuisance by fishermen, who would just throw the shark back in the water, often still alive, however as the value of fins have gone up, now many fishermen are either hauling the shark aboard, or finning it before releasing it. Because of the fins value, it seems like sharks are becoming an unofficial target by these fishermen, as simple gear changes could drastically reduce bycatch.
Why We Need Sharks.
Whether or not you like or fear them, sharks play a crucial role on our planet by keeping our largest and most important ecosystem healthy. As the top predators of the oceans, sharks keep other marine life in check. In order to survive, an ecosystem needs balance, and millions of years of evolution has given us that balance. Remove one link of the chain, and the rest will quickly fall. Our oceans provide 1/3 of the world with food, remove half of the atmospheres greenhouse gasses and produce more oxygen than all of the planets rainforests combined.
Along the eastern coast of the US some of the larger shark species, such as the black tip, and the tiger shark have virtually become extinct. This has led to an unhealthily large population of cow-nose rays, whose choice meal is scallops, clams, and other shellfish. The end result? In 2004 bay scallop numbers fell so low that North Carolina had to close its scallop fisheries that had provided many people livelihoods for over 100 years. Similar patterns have happened in other parts of the world. In Belize, shark overfishing has led to entire coral reef ecosystems to become destroyed. Grouper populations spiked, and hunted most of the parrotfish. Parrotfish have the very important role of keeping corals algae free. Without the parrotfish the algae smothered the corals, blocking out the sunlight they need for photosynthesis. The reef turned into an algae covered graveyard, and everything else vanished.
In Shark Bay, Western Australia, you can see some of the world’s largest sea grass meadows. Sea grass is vitally important to us as it absorbs a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and gives us fresh oxygen to breathe. Sea grass meadows are popular among manatees and turtles, who would love to graze freely in Shark Bay if it was not for the tiger sharks patrolling the area. If the tiger sharks were to vanish, the manatees and turtles would happily overindulge and destroy the meadows, putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere and destroying a vital habitat that shelters juvenile fish. Although this has not happened yet in Shark Bay, In Bermuda the loss of sharks has been linked to the increase of turtle populations, and the destruction of sea grass meadows.
The ‘Danger’ of Sharks.
Years of negative media exposure is one of the main reasons why so many of us fear sharks. Spielberg’s 1975 classic horror movie ‘Jaws’ is often credited for our shark phobia, but there was already a deep set fear of sharks before that. All ‘Jaws’ did was repeat the same message that the media had been portraying for years, ‘Sharks are dangerous man-eaters’. Barely a handful of shark species have ever actually attacked a human, but when most people think of sharks they picture a great white with its mouth wide open, linked to a news story about a surfer having a leg taken off.
The stereotypical portrayal of a shark is wrong. It is wrong because it only focuses on a fraction of the species, and it is wrong because it over dramatizes extreme behaviors. The news outlets also never take into account the human behavior before the attack. The stories never question why a 75 kilo primate decided to doggy paddle in another apex predators hunting grounds. This kind of stereotyping is exactly the same reason why some people think certain ethnicities are dangerous. It leads to irrational fear and hate.
Sure, some species of shark can be dangerous to humans, but that is something you have to accept when going into their territory. Would you expect a crocodile to ignore you if took a swim in one of Queensland’s rivers? How about a leisurely stroll through South Africa’s Kruger national park, where packs of lions actively hunt. Chances are you would never risk either of those things. If you enter another creature’s territory, you need to understand and respect the pecking order.
In reality, on average there are around 100 cases of sharks biting humans annually, with only around 10% being fatal. Considering the amount of people who go into ‘shark infested’ waters every single day, the rate of attacks are very low indeed. Sharks are actually very selective over what they eat. They require high levels of fatty oils in their meal, so they take a ‘test bite’ first to see if the food suits them. It is just unfortunate that a test bite from a great white is enough to take off a leg or cause someone to bleed to death. If they actively wanted to eat humans, surely they would devour the whole thing instead of letting them make their way back to shore (either dead or alive). Any time a shark bites a human is simply because of mis-identification, or self-defense.
What Can Be Done?
Alternative Livelihoods: Although a large amount of sharks are caught in the wealthier ‘western’ nations, the practice of shark finning is mainly done by those in the poorer regions of the world. This is not because they are bad people, or because they believe in cruelty to animals. It is because they cannot afford not to, or at least because the gangs running the operations make attractive offers to the fishermen that could pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
Sharks rank number one on almost all scuba divers list of things they want to see on a dive, and with numbers declining so rapidly, many divers are willing to pay a lot to get a chance to dive with them. Eco-tourism is booming, and the fishermen can make a far greater living by taking tourists out to see them, which not only provides cash in the moment, but it will provide livelihoods for future generations too.
Shark Sanctuaries: A shark sanctuary is an area of ocean that forbids commercial fishing operations from any kind of shark fishing within a certain area. The first established sanctuary was in Palau in 2009, who forbid all commercial shark fishing within its exclusive economic zone. The shark sanctuary protects roughly 230,000 sq. miles of the Pacific Ocean and is home to 135 vulnerable or endangered species of sharks and rays. Since then many more nations have followed Palau and set up their own shark sanctuaries or similar operations.
Some countries have taken a different approach, and have put strict regulations in to protect certain species within their waters. In 1991 South Africa became the first country to give great white sharks legal protection. The U.S. state of Hawaii has banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and other states are considering implementing a similar ban.
How Can I Help?
1) Boycott restaurants that sell shark: Chinese restaurants all over the world sell shark fin soup and many seafood restaurants sell shark steak. If you see it on their menu, simply get up and walk out. Make sure you tell the owner why you are leaving, and why you will not be coming back. If restaurants start losing a lot of customers over an item on the menu, they will eventually remove it.
2) Understand what you are buying: Shark ingredients are hidden in many products under labels such as ‘Squalene’ aka, shark liver oil, which is often found in makeup and bath oils. Shark meat is often sold in restaurants under the names rock salmon or huss. Imitation crab, shrimp or lobster products are often made using shark meat.
3) Vote wisely: The US and many European countries are responsible for catching more sharks than most other countries in the world. Even if your country doesn’t consume heavy amount of shark products, they are probably still part of the problem. Support political parties that are pushing to protect sharks and the environment in general. If more people start pushing for change, the bigger parties will have to listen and make a change.
4) Educate people: Spread the word. The consumption of shark fin soup has fallen by nearly 25% over recent years, simply because the problem of shark finning has been pushed by organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. People can only react if they know the truth.
5) Be heard: You may have seen one of the many online petitions dotted around the web. It may feel that filling in a form on the web can’t make a difference, but it can. Conservation groups use these to show governments and businesses the amount of people who care about the cause, and hopefully use them to make a change. Using social media you can share blogs, posts and petitions to increase the amount of web users who see them, thus more people learning about the cause, and more people will end up signing the petitions.
Some Interesting Shark Facts
-The smallest shark in the world may be the ‘dwarf lantern shark’. The largest known specimen measured only 21.2 cm!
– When attacking its prey, the great white shark rolls its eyes into the back of its head to protect its eyes from its thrashing victim.
– Some species of shark can dislocate and protrude their jaw to help hang onto prey.
– The Aztecs would attach chili peppers to their canoes to deter sharks, although we now know that this is ineffective.
– Some female sharks use sperm from multiple sharks to produce a single litter in order to maintain the gene pool. That means her pups are actually half siblings, even though they are born at the same time.
– Some species of shark (including the great white) will drown if they stop swimming as they don’t have the muscles needed to pump water through their mouth and over their gills.
– The strange shaped heads of the hammerhead shark are soft at birth so they won’t jam their mother’s birth canal.
– Unlike other fish, sharks do not have swim bladders. They instead have large, oil filled bladder to keep them afloat. A sharks balder can make up to 25% of a shark’s weight!
– If a shark eats something that is cannot digest, such as a turtles shell, it can vomit by forcing its stomach out of its mouth then pulling it back in.
A huge thanks to Mike for his blog on Shark Awareness.