Some of our happy group at Lighthouse Cave, San Salvador, Bahamas.
The loss of a species can be detrimental to an ecosystem. Thus, the conservation of species, especially those that are endangered, is of the utmost importance. When one species becomes extinct, it affects everything else within that ecosystem. Multiple species are endangered, ranging from all spectrums of life; the collapse of one species could result in a domino effect forcing many species into extinction. The results are relatively unknown, but the range of possibilities is not positive because such drastic changes can obliterate an entire ecosystem (Myers 2007). The ocean is an example of an area with some very delicate ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Within the ocean, there is a plethora of biota endangered or already extinct. Some of the primary predators of the ocean environment that are endangered are sharks. Sharks are a difficult animal to conserve because of their image and their environment. However, these beautiful creatures need to be protected if for no other reason than for their value to the ocean ecosystem. By changing the image of the shark, showing the prime contributors to sharks endangered state, and discussing the efforts currently being made to conserve them it may be possible to save these amazing creatures.
One of the major problems for sharks is their public image as man-eaters. This image has been perpetuated through movies such as Jaws and headlines talking about people being eaten by sharks. In reality, there are only several species that are dangerous to human beings because of their size and tooth shape. Unfortunately, for a long time all that anyone ever heard about sharks was that they were man-eaters, so many were hunted and killed. More importantly though was how killing sharks was viewed as a positive since these early game fishermen where helping out mankind by ridding the world of these terrible creatures. Thanks to conservationists worldwide the shark’s image as a man-eater is slowly being dissolved. As people begin to learn that shark attacks are rare and shark fatalities even less common, it becomes harder to believe in the man-eater image. “For every human killed by a shark, our species slaughters more than 10 million sharks - about 100 million sharks last year” (Shark Research Institute 2005). One of the most successful ways in which the image of the shark has been changed is through a vast amount of documentaries and studies done on shark behavior.
Scientists are studying shark attacks from multiple disciplines in order to reveal aspects of shark behavior. In an experiment performed by Ritter and Levine, they were able to videotape a great white shark attack. Through this study, they noticed that the bite pattern and the force of the bite were similar to bites on surfers. In this case similar to most others the shark bites one time and then lets go. It is believed that this is not the shark trying to eat a human, but an exploratory bite. In a sense, it is the shark’s way of discovering what his prey is. These bites are almost never fatal, but can cause damage simply because of the size and sharpness of shark teeth (Ritter 2004). As this new knowledge of shark behavior gradually spreads to a greater audience, hopefully the fear of them will lessen and more people will advocate their conservation.
Even though shark’s man-eater image may no longer be so widespread, their appeal as food is increasing. Over fishing has always been a problem with sharks. Being top predators, sharks do not have the reproductive capabilities to sustain heavy fishing. “It takes sharks a long time to reach maturation and they only give birth to a couple babies after very long reproductive cycles” (Manire 1990). This does not bode well for sharks, since they have been over fished since the 1970’s. When the maximum sustainable yield for the Western North Atlantic and Western Central Atlantic of 25,000 mt is broken by an annual average of 17,000 mt’s, it is a wonder that any of these fisheries still remain today (Manire 1990).
This coupled with the ever-increasing demand for shark products, meat, leather, and especially fins could result in the extinction of as many as 20 shark species by 2017 (Bite-Back 2002). “Shark fins have become one of the world's most precious commodities reaching figures of up to $256 per pound. It was recently reported that the dorsal fin of a whale shark alone fetched $15,000 at market” (Bite-Back 2002). In fact, nearly 73 million sharks are killed by finning every year (Holland 2007). As the demand and consumption continue to increase, many of the shark populations seemed faced with the biologically impossible challenge of sustaining a higher birth than mortality rate under these extreme conditions for decades in order to rebuild their populations.
One extremely detrimental practice to shark fisheries is that of longlining. Its name comes from its use of extensive amounts of line, measuring up to 81 miles of line with 40,000 baited hooks attached (Bite-Back 2002). Not only does this allow for massive catches daily, it also has an extremely low catch rate. Sometimes they can catch as little as 2 out of 100 of the species they are fishing for. The result is a large number of unaccounted for shark deaths.
Trawling is another type of fishing that is playing a role in the destruction of shark populations. A trawl is essentially a huge net anchored to the sea floor by large metal doors and chains. These trawls can spread up to 650 ft. and catch 15 tons of fish in one haul (Bite-Back 2002). This not only catches massive amounts of fish, but also destroys habitats and breeding grounds located on the sea floor. As these fishing technologies continue to increase, it only fosters the catching of more and more sharks yearly. The only question now seems to be when will the sharks be gone?
Some measures are being taken to help curb these plummeting populations in the hopes of eventually restoring sharks to their previously lush quantities. For example, Bite-Back sponsors campaigns to take endangered species out of grocery stores. Of several UK supermarkets, a few have stopped buying and selling some of the endangered species. Yet only one of the supermarkets has stopped the selling of shark (Bite-Back 2002). While this is a small movement, it is growing and helping to change one aspect of shark conservation, stopping the selling of shark.
Laws are also becoming more abundant as a larger amount of sharks are coming under the protection of new legislation. Thus far in Australia and the United States the thresher shark, angel shark, leopard shark, shortfin mako, and the great white have been restricted (Isle of Man). However, these laws vary from shark to shark and are often limited to small areas of ocean. For instance, it is illegal to fish for the basking shark in a 12-mile radius around the Isle of Man. However, since this species is rarely within 12 miles of shore, the legislation is not very effective. “Finally in November 2005 basking sharks were added to the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species and as a result the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission recommend that there be NO FISHING FOR BASKING SHARKS in the North Atlantic” (Isle of Man).
While progress is being made through legislation, there is complication. It is difficult for governments to enforce these rules over such large areas, and because of this many sharks are still caught illegally. Perhaps the problem is that the penalties are not steep enough, or the governments are just not willing to put the money forth to keep the oceans under sufficient surveillance. Regardless, it is extremely important that these laws be rigorously enforced in order to be effective.
Scientists continue to find new solutions to these problems. Whether intended to or not, practices such as tagging sharks are not only helping to learn more about these creatures, but also to monitor them. These are steps leading towards a reality in which sharks can truly be protected in the wild. Another ingenious ploy is the writing and publicizing of popular places to sight sharks. Although only a small number of tourists will be actively shark sighting, it can only increase the surveillance of sharks and maybe decrease the amount of sharks killed yearly.
Although the situation for sharks looks dire, there is still hope for the species. As long as conservation measures are continually increased and the ideas of how to do so become more and more ingenious, there is a chance, however slight, that sharks may be able to be rescued from the iron grip mankind has placed upon them. It is essential that we learn from the mistakes we have made and correct them before it is to late. While some of the wrongdoings were because of ignorance, others are from greed and carelessness. The importance of sharks to the biodiversity and ecosystem of the world’s oceans cannot be stressed enough, as humans continue to let shark populations dwindle.
Bite-Back, Shark and Marine Conservation. Retrieved April 23, 2007, from Issues Web
Holland , Jennifer (2007 march). Sharks of the Bahamas. National Geographic, Vol. 211
No. 3, 116-137.
Isle of Man, Isle of Man. Retrieved April 23, 2007, from Laws protecting the Basking
Shark in the Isle of Man and Worldwide Web site:
Manire, Charles A. (1990). Many Sharks May Be Headed Toward Extinction.
Conservation Biology, Vol. 4, Retrieved April 23, 2007, from
Myers, Ransom A. (2007). Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from
a Coastal Ocean. Science, Vol. 315.
Ritter, E. (2004). The use of forensic analysis to better understand shark attack behavior.
The Journal of Forensic Odonto-Stomatology, 22, Retrieved April 23, 2007, from
Shark Research Institute, (2005). Why Study Shark Attacks?. Retrieved April 23, 2007,
from Global Shark Attack File Web site: http://www.sharkattackfile.net/whystudy.htm
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