Contrary to popular opinion, sharks do more than just go around eating fish, doing full body breaches for our cameras, and giving us toothy smiles. As an apex predator they play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. Their presence or lack thereof serves as an indicator of ocean health and unbeknownst to them, they actually maintain coral reef and seagrass habitats. Where sharks have disappeared, coral reefs have deteriorated or died. All of the 450 species of grey beauties are important to keep a balance in our ocean fisheries.
Like many predators, sharks tend to prey upon the weak and diseased, helping to keep the disease under control and leaving the healthy to breed and continue to repopulate. This cycle helps keep the fisheries healthy and the populations at a sustainable level. I hate to use the word balance again, but it’s important. Let’s try a real world example.
On the East Coast of the US, shark populations have dwindled. Since this apex predator has been nearly removed from the ecosystem there, the population of rays has skyrocketed. The rays feed on bivalves and have decimated the scallop and clam fisheries, forcing local restaurants to stop serving clam chowder. Many tourists take trips to the coast just to have fresh clam chowder but now those tourism dollars are being lost along with the income from the fisheries that have had to close.
It’s not just the swimming marine life that they help control. If the balance in the oceans is too drastically thrown off kilter, the effects go on down the chain until the algae that produces 50% of our oxygen grows out of control. This would have two dangerous effects. One would be the increase of oxygen in our atmosphere and the other would be the smothering all of the coral in the oceans, effectively killing the reefs. If you’re interested in knowing more about why our reefs are important, you can see my article about it here: The Importance of Coral Reefs
There’s one more way sharks help us, and this one has to do with research. Sharks have been around for 400 million years. That’s a long time to evolve into the nearly perfect predators they are. During that time, they’ve developed remarkable immune systems that can resist cancers and other diseases in ways we haven’t even begun to figure out. We can learn from this, and we may be able to figure out how to treat some of the sickest among our own by studying these magnificent animals.
If you think that the fishing of sharks isn’t that big of a deal, think again. Aside from just flat out decreasing the populations to near extinction, shark reproduction needs to be taken into account. Sharks don’t breed like bunnies and just pop out baby biters left and right. They grow slowly to adulthood and have very few offspring once they get there. This fact makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing practices like we’ve been using for centuries. Practices that too many fishermen continue to use.
The days of “the only good shark is a dead shark” have long since gone. We all need to work together to save the shark populations, save our oceans and ourselves in the process. While traveling, avoid any shark related products like teeth, jaws, skin, or pills with cartilage or shark liver oil. Be responsible with your choices in seafood by finding out where it comes from. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch Guide that is useful for this. Participate in petitions and write your local representatives regarding any related initiatives that may be heading toward the legislature. Donate to organizations dedicated to helping sharks such as projectaware.org, sharkangels.org, and sharksavers.org. Last but not least, spread the word about how and why sharks need our help.