Shark Week Holding Out For A Hero

Sharks are unable to speak for themselves, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me speaking for them, just this once.

With Shark Week by Discovery Channel in full swing, having started on Aug 9th and carrying on till the 16th, we would like to celebrate sharks, not just for their role in popular media, but for their role in the ecosystem, a role we underestimate all too often. 

Sharks have virtually no PR agents when it comes to their reputation in the media, ever since Jaws (1975). Unfortunately, one movie was enough to damage their reputation enough to the point where they were highly feared and misunderstood, and they were hunted down in annual competitions that still persist today, where the biggest catch is heralded as a testament to man’s superiority. Today, most competitions are ‘safer’, with sharks being photographed, then tagged and released instead of being butchered. 

However, it seems as though sharks cannot catch a break. Shark fin soup is a delicacy and status symbol, and today, a borderline illegal one. Although it is a dish with a rich history, it is also a bloody one. In 2003, shark finning was banned by the EU, but fisheries were able to circumvent this- the law was based around the fact that sharks brought in could not be finned on land. This was avoided by fishermen finning the shark while they were on the boat, and then dumping the shark back into the waters. Thankfully, the loophole was closed in 2012, cracking down on the supply. Hong Kong is unfortunately still one of the major consumers of the soup, responsible for more than 40% of the global trade, despite the rising popularity of its more ethical imitation shark fin soup. 

The last nail in the coffin is the sharks who are killed not intentionally, but as a bycatch from overfishing. The most endangered shark as of date, the Northern River Shark, is critically endangered, with an estimated 250 individuals out in the sea. That’s the equivalent of 8 classrooms, which does not sound like an absurd amount, until you rationalize it as the whole population of an entire species. A ‘bycatch’ is defined as an unintended species being caught by the net. A fishing net may be cast out to catch salmon alone, but may also entangle sharks, turtles and dolphins, which kills them. Their habitat is also threatened by human interference, which, if you think about, is an awful step back for the other humans trying to save them. 

Aside from the obvious cruelty of a living being dying, what is wrong with overfishing sharks? Assuming there was a way to eradicate sharks completely in an ethical manner, there is the glaring problem of the now-unbalanced ecosystem. Sharks are integral to the marine ecosystem– as apex predators, feeding on the herbivores or smaller carnivores. While this sounds initially unhelpful, they actually regulate the food chain. Since they feed on a variety of species, this means they can change their diet and hunt down another species if one gets too low, allowing them to repopulate. Without these apex predators, the herbivore population, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish would boost frantically, and destroy the natural vegetation of the sea, faster than it can grow. Sharks, despite their cruel role of nature, keep the coral reefs in a stasis. 

Figure: Change in shark populations from 1986-2000, from Baum

When I drop a plate and break it, I have committed a ‘whoopsie’. When humanity has depleted the population of sharks by up to 89% in as little as 15 years, I also consider that a ‘whoopsie’, albeit on a much grander scale. The population shrinking from hunting and bycatch is so grave that out of around 1000 shark species, nearly a third is threatened, vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. For the past decades, sharks have not been in the public eye, most likely because of their fearsome appearance. While this sounds like a tiring conclusion to arrive at, efforts to restore populations, or at least reduce the amount of killings, have risen in recent years. Project Aware, Shark Trust, and Sharks MOU are all organizations, or projects dedicated to shark conservation, especially endangered species. The message is the same- that even if sharks aren’t creatures as cuddly as pandas or arctic foxes, they still deserve to be protected.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping an eye out for this Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programme to me, there’s nothing more fascinating than a unique insight into these beings, key differences between them and land predators, and more importantly, how we can help to protect them!

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