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Sharks have a fierce reputation. There are actually about 400 species of sharks, and not all (not even most) attack humans. Movies like Jaws, shark attacks in the news and sensational TV shows have led many to believe that sharks need to be feared, and even killed. But in reality, sharks have much more to fear from us than we do of them.
Threats to Sharks
- Their natural biology - Sharks take a long time to get old enough to reproduce, and typically have small numbers of pups at once. Therefore, once a population is threatened, it can take a long time to recover.
- Shark Finning - The meat of sharks isn't always valuable, but many species are valued highly for their fins, which are used for shark fin soup and traditional medicines. Finning is a cruel practice in which the shark's fins are lopped off, and the live shark is thrown back to sea. The fins don't have much taste, but they have a prized "mouth-feel" and bowls of soup can cost more than $100. Many countries and states have developed laws stating that sharks have to be landed with their fins on.
- Bycatch - Sharks may be caught as bycatch in some fisheries. This means they are accidentally caught and can die.
- Recreational Fishing - Some species of sharks are targeted by recreational and/or commercial fishing, which can result in overfishing. Many fishing tournaments and marinas are now encouraging catch and release practices.
- Commercial Fishing - Many shark species have been harvested commercially, for their meat, liver, fins, and cartilage.
- Coastal development and pollution - This can affect the amount of healthy habitat available for sharks. Many coastal areas are important especially for giving birth, and as habitat for young sharks and their prey. Sharks also accumulate pollutants like mercury in their tissues through a processed called bioaccumulation (sharks eat affected fish and store toxins in their tissues, and as the shark feeds these toxins can accumulate into high levels).
- Shark nets - In some areas, shark nets have been put into place at swimming beaches. Sharks can get caught in the nets and die.
Millions of sharks are thought to be killed each year. In contrast, in 2013, there were 47 shark attacks on humans, with 10 fatalities.
Why Protect Sharks?
Now for the real question: why protect sharks? Does it matter if millions of sharks are killed each year?
Sharks are important for a variety of reasons. One is that some species are apex predators - this means that they have no natural predators and are at the top of the food chain. These species keep other species in check, and their removal could have drastic impacts on an ecosystem. Removal of an apex predator can result in an increase in smaller predators, which causes an overall decline in prey populations. It was once thought that culling shark populations might result in an increase in commercially valuable fish species, but this is likely not the case.
Sharks can keep fish stocks healthy. They can feed on weak, unhealthy fish, which lessens the chance that disease can spread through fish populations.
You Can Help Save Sharks
Want to help protect sharks? Here are some ways to help:
- Learn about sharks and educate your friends and family! Sharks are threatened in large part because people believe they are voracious, indiscriminate predators. This is not the case.
- Support laws protecting sharks and banning shark finning around the world.
- Support shark research and conservation organizations by donating time or money. The more we learn about sharks, the more we learn about their importance.
- Scuba dive with sharks responsibly and support reputable dive operators.
- Do not consume or purchase shark products such as shark fin soup, shark leather, or jewelry.
2013 Shark Attack Report