On Sunday, the Discovery Channel kicked off its 32nd installment of Shark Week, a weeklong program filled with documentaries and shows designed to teach the masses about sharks and in turn, hopefully spark interest in conservation efforts. Shark Week is the reason I initially became so obsessed with sharks. In 1975, the movie Jaws based on a novel written by Peter Benchley was released. The novel was partly based on shark attacks that took place off the coast of New Jersey in 1916 when a suspected rogue shark took the lives of four people and injured one. Despite the lack of special effects and technology that the creature features of today boast, the original Jaws still has the ability to scare the living hell out of you.
Unfortunately, the movie also created (and continues to create) a deep seeded fear of the ocean and sharks, particularly great whites. Since the release of Jaws, humans have senselessly slaughtered millions of sharks through culling, sport fishing, and finning. Some species, the great white included, are now critically endangered. Due to our fear of the ocean and its apex predators and the fact that sharks may not look as cute and fluffy as a koala bear or a sea lion, people are less likely to jump on board the “save sharks” bandwagon. Even Benchley felt partly responsible for his role in the negative attitude towards the species and spent the years following the publication of Jaws as an avid ocean conservationist.
In recent years, the programs of the Discovery Channel have focused more on the dramatizations of shark attacks and gimmicks like Shark vs. Michael Phelps and while I’m not sure that this has helped or hindered shark conservation efforts, the Discovery Channel still holds its stance that the week is about education and promoting conservation. However, glorifying shark attacks does not seem to be the most effective way to convince people that they shouldn’t fear sharks, but save them. Despite all of this, now is as good a time as any to discuss the conservation of sharks.
It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year. Sharks take long periods to mature and generally produce few young in their lifetime, so if we continue slaughtering sharks in these numbers, the species simply will not recover. In comparison, there are only 16 shark attacks on humans on average each year. That’s not to trivialize these attacks. It’s just to point out the unfounded fear that we have of sharks and to cast light on the irreversible damage that we are causing by either actively participating in or by allowing the destruction to continue. Sharks are not a plague that needs to be eradicated for the safety of mankind. Our planet’s ecosystems are designed with purpose. Every animal, plant, and tiny organism serves a very specific role in their ecosystem. With every being doing its job, the ecosystem remains balanced. Apex predators (like sharks) are important because they maintain the species below them. They remove the weak and the sick as well as help to keep balance with competitors in order to help ensure species diversity. Predators shift their prey’s spatial habitat, which alters the feeding strategy and diets of other species. Through spatial controls, sharks indirectly maintain the seagrass and coral reef habitats. Without sharks, larger predatory fish increase in abundance and overfeed on the herbivores. With less herbivores, macroalgae expands and coral can no longer compete, affecting the survival of the reef system.
The theatrics and gimmicks of Shark Week prompted me to look elsewhere for information on shark conservation. Saving Jaws (available on IMDb TV, Amazon Prime and Hulu) in particular, really opened my eyes to how prevalent shark finning still is despite an international ban on shark finning being in place. For those of you unfamiliar, shark finning is a disgusting and inhumane way of killing sharks. The fins have a high market value and are used for shark fin soup, a high-end delicacy in Chinese culture. Sharks are pulled on board by large fishing vessels. Their fins are sliced off and then while still alive, the shark is tossed back into the ocean where it drowns without the use of its fins. The fishermen prefer to do it this way rather than bring the entire shark to market because the fins are more valuable and they don’t want the bodies taking up room that could be used to store more fins. On top of this, there is no positive reason that we should even include shark fins in our diet in the first place. Shark fins are high in mercury, which is a known reproductive, developmental toxin that can cause permanent nerve and brain damage. Furthermore, the process of treating and drying out the fins for consumption can actually concentrate the mercury and make the levels even higher.
What can you do to help?
- Learn more about sharks – many times, we fear the unknown. The more you educate yourself about a subject, the less fear and stigma is attached to it. Additionally, the more you learn and come to understand sharks, the better able to advocate for them you’ll be.
- Do not use products that contain shark (better yet – do not use products that contain animals period). You may not eat shark fin soup, but that doesn’t mean you’re not potentially contributing to the plight of the species. You’d be surprised by how many mundane products there are on the market that could contain shark. Read your product labels! Research your product companies! Shark teeth are also very popular in fashion jewelry right now. This isn’t super alarming because sharks do shed teeth constantly, but before buying, make sure that the teeth found in your jewelry are either fossilized or found ethically (found during a dive or on the beach). If the seller doesn’t know where it came from, DO NOT BUY IT. That being said, it isn’t all that common for shark teeth to just wash up on shore, so if you’re vacationing in Florida and find rows and rows of small stands selling shark teeth jewelry and claiming that the teeth have been found ethically, I’d hesitate to believe that all of the sellers are entirely truthful. If you’re at all in doubt about the source, DO NOT BUY IT.
- Shop with companies that are run sustainably. This means food, clothing, etc.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle.
- Write to your legislators – tell them that shark conservation is important to you and that you’d like them to introduce legislation that will list sharks as a protected species, ban shark finning and fishing, and establish protected areas in our oceans. Sign any petitions that may come your way advocating for the preservation of sharks. Better yet, once you’ve signed that petition, encourage others in your circle to do the same.
- Speak up when you see abuse – if you see that your local restaurant serves shark fin soup or other shark dishes, say something. Explain to the owner that what they’re doing is hurting our oceans. If they won’t listen, don’t eat there until they change their policy. Tell others not to eat their until they change their policy. Shark finning still exists because it’s a lucrative business. If we hit them where it hurts, they’ll have no choice, but to listen.
- Donate and/or volunteer with conservation organizations.
- Spread awareness on social media as often as you can.