Shark Conservation: Why Should We Protect Sharks?
They are the predators of the deep. The creatures with the terrifying rows of teeth and the rather unfair reputation for the occasional nipping of a bather. Well, sometimes it’s more than a nip, but sharks are not the man hunters we have conjured up in our minds. Instead, they are for the most part quite peaceful creatures and recently many shark species have started to become endangered.
Sharks are more than just wild animals to be observed for entertainment. They play a very important role in their ecosystem. A role that should never be underestimated or thought of as unimportant. Should the shark become extinct, there is no way we could possibly know what the exact implications could be, but we do know that the entire marine system is likely to be completely destabilised.
One critical aspect of any ecosystem is biodiversity. And it is the sharks who make sure that the biodiversity within their eco-system is perfectly maintained. They influence both the behaviour and population numbers of their prey, ensuring that the balance is kept in check. By the very nature of them being predators, they go after the slower, weaker prey, which means that any prey with weaker genes is unable to breed.
Because they are mostly responsible for maintaining the food chain, sharks can be an indicator of the health of the ocean. They are responsible for altering and maintaining the feeding strategy and diets of the species below them in the food chain and as a result, the sharks have an indirect effect on the maintenance of coral reefs and seagrass.
A healthy ocean needs sharks. Without them, the herbivore fish species will have a massive, negative effect on the reef systems.
But it is more than the oceans that are affected. Sharks also affect the fishing industries. And not in the way that you might think. People often incorrectly think that sharks disrupt the fishing industry by depleting the populations, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, studies have shown that sharks keep other predators from overhunting, again playing the vital role of keeping the biodiversity balanced.
And then there is the tourism factor
This has little to do with maintaining the oceanic balance, but it is quite important for the survival of the species. Ocean tourism brings divers from all over the world to various destinations to see sharks in their natural habitat. This means the local economy enjoys a massive boost and in turn, the sharks are kept safe. This is not so much because the locals have an affection for the shark, but because the sharks bring in money.
Are sharks really under threat?
The short, straightforward answer to this would be yes. Sharks are actually under serious threat. And it is not just in South Africa, it’s all across the world. Sharks face various threats, but the biggest threat of all comes from humans. Currently, it is estimated that up to 70 million sharks are killed by humans every year. They are killed for both recreational enjoyment as well as commercial gain. There are few laws or regulations in place to protect sharks, and getting these regulations in place is often next to impossible because there is plenty of money to be made off of “shark fishing”.
Over the years, finning has become a big problem. The sharks are captured, their fins are hacked off and the bodies are thrown back into the ocean. Between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed for their fins each year, an act that is fuelling the shark fin market. In Asian countries, in particular, shark fin soup is a popular meal which has made it a profitable market. Along with shark fins, shark skin and shark oils are also sought after by various industries.
Fishing is not the only way that humans are bringing shark populations under threat. Pollution, coastal development, and damage to their habitats are all to blame. Most shark species grow slowly and naturally have low reproduction rates. With millions of sharks killed, topped with the slow birth rates, we're seeing a massive and troubling decline in the population numbers. Strict laws and the enforcement of these laws is important and divers can help! Each time you go shark diving, you are helping the species by both raising awareness and by raising money for conservation efforts.