Shark Finning and Our Ecosystem
Nearly every summer there is a new blockbuster of a killer shark terrorizing innocent swimmers trying to enjoy the beach. My own mother is still too scared to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws as a child. All of the negative press - be it exaggerated Hollywood films or fear mongering newspaper articles - are making for a scared public audience. This press leads to no sympathy for the abused animals who provide a vital role in the ecosystem, of not just the ocean, but the entire planet.
Over a hundred million sharks are killed every year. That’s 11,000 per hour. The two main contributors are “bycatch” and “shark finning”. Shark finning is the incredibly cruel act of cutting the fins off of a shark. Completely taking away their ability to swim, the mutilated shark is then tossed back into the ocean where it will die a slow, painful death of drowning - suffering tremendously from injuries. Why is this done? For soup. Shark fin soup is popular in Chinese cuisine and is thought to increase sexual potency. Recently a bill was signed to make shark fin trade illegal in the US, but Florida continues to shark fin through loopholes in the bill and remains the largest shark fin trader in the US. Other countries are still allowing the practice of shark finning, including our northern neighbor, Canada.
Sharks are far from human killing machines. Sure, they can be a little scary looking, but we usually only see them in one light - while they are eating. The imagery of a white shark leaping out of the water to grab a bite of food is so overplayed. Rarely are sharks shown doing other things like migrating or finding a mate. And yes, people are killed by sharks each year. Five people on average. But, before you start to fear swimming in the ocean, you are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even more likely to die of lightning strike.
As a scuba diver, diving with sharks is the highlight of the dive. Unfortunately, sharks aren’t very common to come by unless you are in an area known for shark sightings. But if you do see a shark in a coral reef, it’s a great sign of a healthy ecosystem. Sharks are vital to the very fragile ocean ecosystem. Sharks help maintain the reef and allow for a balanced life within it. Removing sharks would cause for the overpopulation of some species and the complete extinction of others. Loss in shark populations would also affect our air supply as 70% of our oxygen is created by marine plants. Sharks also indirectly help manage sea plants and help maintain seagrass during heat waves and climate change events.
Sharks are widely vilified and they aren’t one of those animals that conjures up the feeling of “Aww” when thought of. This is problematic because animals that aren’t cute and cuddly are often forgotten about when in danger. Many sharks species are either listed as threatened or endangered, which - in combination with the over-fishing, their slow maturity rate and low reproduction rate - makes it harder for sharks to recover their population size. Sharks are more important than just the subject of the week long summer series on Discovery Channel. A great way to help is by educating others, because knowledge really is power. Another way is by not eating fish, because sustainable fishing does not exist. Support ocean-based marine conservation groups like Oceana, Sea Shepard Conservation Society, Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
These five-gilled fish (some have six or seven gills!) need us for their survival, and we need them too. Making a conscience decision to be more earth conscience and ocean friendly can make a huge impact on the world around us. Becoming part of the solution is one of the best legacies you can leave.