Sharks are perfectly evolved to thrive and survive in the ocean. Sharks have been around for over 420 million years, changing and evolving to be the creatures we know today. Being an extremely diverse group of animals, sharks are found in every ocean on earth, ranging from just 7 inches long, to over 30 feet in length. Despite all of their evolutionary advantages and diverse traits in this diverse lineage of cartilaginous fish, we are now at risk of losing these animals. Sharks play a critical role in keeping our oceans healthy, but human consumption is hurting shark populations globally, and creating situations that can be dangerous for surfers, swimmers and other recreationists.
In order for marine ecosystems to be healthy, the presence of sharks is crucial. Sharks keep the ocean in balance by either directly or indirectly benefiting every level of the food chain. The mere presence of sharks can cause prey to act differently. The threat of a shark causes prey to be healthier, as sick and dying fish are easily removed from the ecosystem via sharks, stopping the spread of disease amongst the fish population. In turn, this makes fisheries more bountiful. Sharks also stop prey from becoming overpopulated, directly contributing to the health of the entire ecosystem. If you remove these key predators from their environment, it will have a rippling, catastrophic effect down the entire food chain. They also are a factor in the carbon cycle for the ocean. Aside from eating and processing carbon, sharks and other large marine animals sequester large amounts of carbon in their bodies. When sharks are removed, there is that much less carbon kept in the ocean, furthering the effects of global warming. It is essentially impossible to have a healthy ocean without having healthy populations of sharks.
Putting a monetary value on sharks is a great way of showing the economic benefits of protecting sharks. While it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific value for an individual, multiple studies have concluded that a live shark generates huge benefit to island economies through dive tourism. One study in Palau estimated the value of one living reef shark generates 1.9 million dollars throughout an individual’s lifetime. Most of this money comes from ecotourism, specifically from diving. Sharks are so valued to the dive community that people travel the world just to experience them in the wild, greatly contributing to local economies as they do so. A dead shark, however, is worth a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the species. The long term economic benefit for protecting sharks far outweighs the short term, temporary value of harvesting sharks, especially when the shark is harvested solely for their fins.
The shark fin trade can be described as the biggest animal rights violation of our time. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year, with 73 million of those sharks being killed for their fins. This barbaric act typically consists of catching sharks in large quantities, cutting off their fins, and throwing the rest of the still living animal back into the ocean. The value of the shark is mostly in the fin, and by discarding the body of the shark, more fins can be stored on vessels at once. These still alive sharks then slowly suffocate as they sink to the sea floor. The fins are then dehydrated, and then sold to be used as soup. While this cruel act has been banned in many nations, the shark fin trade is still fueled by the markets for shark fin. Potential solutions to stopping this cruelty is by pushing legislation to outlaw shark finning and the possession of fins. Additionally, shark conservation can be furthered by changing economies that depend on shark finning to economies that rely on the more profitable and more sustainable ecotourism model. Sharks aren’t always caught just for their fins. Recreational shark fishermen commonly seek sharks out near popular beaches in California for sport.
Shark fishing from beaches and peers can lead to harmful interactions between people and sharks, specifically when sharks are baited in using chum. Using chum consists of scattering oil, blood, fluids, and mixed up pieces of fish to create a lure for sharks. This slick of chum can attract sharks away from their natural paths, closer to the shore, and beaches. These sharks are now out of their natural habitat, as well as expecting a meal. Hungry, confused, and misplaced sharks are more likely to have potentially dangerous interactions with swimmers and beach goers. It is common sense not to dump gallons of fish blood right next to where people swim, especially with the intent of attracting sharks. Chumming is currently still legal in the state of California, putting surfers, swimmers, and vacationing people at a greatly increased risk of having a dangerous encounter with a shark.
Despite the current risks to shark populations worldwide, there are many things people at home of all ages can do to help protect these beautiful animals. Many people purchase shark products without knowing it. Shark derived Squalene (an oil found in certain organs in sharks) is used in many products, ranging from make-up products and deodorants to cleaning solutions and industrial chemicals. Checking the ingredient lists on common household products is a great way to make sure you aren’t accidentally contributing to the shark trade. You can aid in the protection of sharks more directly by donating or volunteering with shark related nonprofits like Shark Stewards, an international organization working to protect California sharks and sharks globally from overfishing and the shark fin trade. The most important way you can help sharks is to use your voice. Let your representatives in government know sharks matter, and use your vote to help protect what you value. We are all responsible for the health of our planet, and a healthy Earth needs healthy sharks.
David Kronman, Shark Stewards
David Kronman has a lifelong love for sharks, and a passion for conservation. He is attending the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami, studying marine biology and ecology. David is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he enjoys scuba diving and photography. Along with volunteering at Shark Stewards, David works at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.