Recent victories on the legislative level have given hope to the efforts to save the world’s sharks. While preventing the extinction of any species is an ethically important obligation for human beings, saving the shark is especially important. And while it’s generally easy to convince people of the importance in saving turtles, dolphins, and other species that are generally anthropomorphized, convincing people that it’s important to protect an animal that they perceive as a fierce man-killer can be trickier.
Why save the shark?
As the ocean’s apex predator, sharks are at the top of the food chain. Because of this it’s typically a good sign when they’re spotted in an area, as their presence indicates that the ecosystem is reasonably healthy. For an apex predator to survive and thrive, they need an abundant and healthy food supply, all the way down to the primary producer. But sharks do more than just indicate a healthy food chain and marine environment; they also help regulate it.
Apex predators are, by definition, carnivorous, and play a critical role in maintaining the delicate balance between individual species in a given environment by hunting and eating certain animals.
One example of this is the turtle. Most people love turtles, and many of the species are themselves endangered. Many species of sharks eat turtles, so less sharks means more turtles — a good thing, right? Well, actually, no. Many turtles eat coral, so an unregulated population of turtles, growing to too-great numbers, would mean that they could over-graze the reefs, eating corals faster than they can regrow, which could lead to a dying or unhealthy reef.
A lack of apex predators also means invasive species can be a problem. When a new species migrates into a marine environment, due to climate change or as the result of accidental transportation by marine vessels, there may be no apex predator to keep the population in check. Uncontrolled numbers of an invasive species in turn lead to an ever-increasing demand for food and breeding grounds, which can ultimately out-compete local species to the point of extinction.
So an ocean without sharks would pose an even greater threat to the world’s coral reefs, reefs that are home to the majority of marine species, and with them, food chains.
So we must not only continue to work for shark conservation, but to redouble our efforts, both because of our simple, moral obligation to do so, and because of the role these creatures play in maintaining the delicately balanced ocean ecosystems.
To learn more about how you can help protect sharks, get in touch with your local environmental organizations, or contact one of several international organizations such as Project AWARE, working for stronger legislation to protect sharks.