Since the 1970’s when the movie Jaws first showed up on big screens around the country, people have been afraid of beaches, in fear of shark attacks. Not only have they been apprehensive about swimming in the ocean, but some have such malicious feelings towards sharks (especially Atlantic White Sharks due to their role in the movie) that they have taken to hunting and killing this already dwindling species. (Earth Island Institute) It is no secret that pollution and overfishing, as well as numerous other factors have caused the biodiversity of marine life to drastically decrease.
It is also known that the ocean ecosystem relies much on all members of the food chainparticularly top predators like sharks. Larger sharks, including Tiger Sharks, Whale Sharks, White Sharks, and Basking Sharks play some of the biggest roles. Bottom line, sharks are imperative to the health of the world’s oceans as well as those who rely on it’s products to survive. (Reef Brief) All the above mentioned factors prove that it is necessary to preserve these majestic beasts, and in turn the health of the ocean ecosystem. It doesn’t come as a surprise that sharks are among the biggest predators in the ocean.
In reference to a basic food pyramid, it could be said to go something like this (we are going to skip the plant/producer level, though it will be used later): plankton, shrimp, krill, and clams come in the greatest numbers, predated by stingrays, birds, and an assortment of other fish in a much smaller quantity, which are then hunted by the top predators such as sharks. As small and seemingly unimportant each of these members may seem, they all play an enormous role in supporting the food pyramid, and in turn, the ocean as a whole. Because of the shark scare epidemic that has struck the country, the collapse is closer than you may think.
It has been approximated that the population of Atlantic White Sharks has dropped by 79% in recent years (Shark Research Institute), which has had a profound impact further down the chain. When tertiary consumers, such as sharks, decrease in number, the amount of secondary consumers increases, just because they are not being preyed upon as much. This leads to a large population of these species, which then depletes the population of primary consumers. This lack of primary consumers causes the amount of plant material or producers to reach unsurmounted levels, then throwing the oxygen levels of the water off.
To explain further, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water depends on the quantity of organic material present. It is natural to have lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the summer when the water is warmer, as a result of decaying plant material. When there is a surplus of plant material (as in the situation described above), the summer dissolved oxygen levels are even lower. All of this puts a strain on the other marine animals. Additionally, certain plants and animals help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide present in the water. Too much carbon dioxide could be a cause of damage to many species, and even completely wipe others out.
You can see how something that appears benign can cause such a ripple in the marine ecosystem. However, you may have noticed something missing in the above situation-humans. While the health of the ocean takes precedence over the wants of humans, an unbalanced food pyramid does have a big effect on the seafood industry. The marine ecosystem does not stand alone, though. It is supported by something called biodiversity. Generally, biodiversity is the number of unique species present in an ecosystem. More biodiversity is always the best- it enriches and strengthens the food pyramid.
If sharks depended on stingrays alone for nourishment and something caused the population of the stingrays to plummet, the shark species would also suffer. (Reef Brief) And as described above, the whole ocean ecosystem and its dependents will be affected. Not only does biodiversity maintain balance of the marine environment, it also affects individual animals by providing needed shelter. For example, a well diverse community would have many different species of algae and other plants. A thick bed of plant material is optimal for crustaceans (clams, mussels, etc. ) and molluscs.
Some small or juvenile fish even find refuge there, because the biomass is good for feeding and protection from predators. (World Ocean Review) Again, this leads back to the food pyramid. Smaller animals are fed upon by larger animals and the energy moves up the chain. Now that you have been convinced of the importance of sharks (in specific, Atlantic White Sharks), you will appreciate the efforts made to preserve this species. As mentioned in the beginning, Atlantic White Sharks are being feared and hunted. People run wild, saying that the sharks are going to kill us anyway, so we might as well fight back.
It is unfortunate that this has become the common mentality, some avoiding the beach like the plague while others wage war against the shark species. Based on the media, one might think that one hundred people or more die a year from shark attacks. In reality, all shark species combined kill only about twenty a year. (National Geographic) Just think of the scale- almost 59 million people in the United States alone visit the beach each year. (U. S. Census Bureau) Out of all those people, not even 20 are victims of Atlantic White Shark attacks. Think about that statistic again.
There are 59 million American beachgoers every year, and 20 shark attacks (not only Atlantic White Shark attacks). Any fears or resulting actions are irrational and don’t solve any problems. The only impact it has is the destruction of the shark population. Meanwhile, sharks are decreasing in number. It is estimated that between 20 and 100 million sharks die every year. That pales in comparison to the few 20 people killed every year by them. The three most predated species by include: Scalloped Hammerheads, Thresher Sharks, and Atlantic White Sharks. Because of the Movie Jaws, one species in particular has caught the attention of many.
Atlantic White Shark populations have dropped by 79% in the past fifteen years, slowing down recently. (Shark Research Institute) We can attribute this to Atlantic White Sharks becoming a federally protected species in 1997, as well as protection efforts made by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (founded in 2012 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts). The Conservancy seeks to reach out and educate the public about this problem and hopefully inspire others to take action. Other groups have also formed in an attempt to protect marine life and biodiversity in general.
Shark Advocates International, which focuses on giving the sharks a voice in politics. Achievements include getting several endangered shark species listed as a federally protected species, passing restrictions and bans on finning (where sharks are caught, their fins removed, and then released where they will soon die), fishing limits for smaller species of sharks, and development of fisheries to cultivate especially delicate breeds. (Shark Advocates International) Both the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and Shark Advocates International have done an exceptional job changing the public’s views as well.
One account states that, when spotting a beached and distressed shark, that tourists helped it get back to safe waters. A few years ago that would be unheard of- it is obvious that progress has been made. But still, the statistics are staggering, especially when you look at the kind of pressure that is put on these apex predators to support the food chain. You are encouraged to make every effort you can to spread the word about these misunderstood creatures and to do your part to protect them. Once the sharks are gone, there is not much that can be done to resurrect them from their extinct status.
Without groups like the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and Shark Advocates International this issue would have never been communicated and their fate would have been sealed. There is no hiding it- sharks are our friends. The sheer importance of every animal and species in the puzzle that is the marine food chain. Just as a tower cannot stand without a solid foundation, the marine ecosystem cannot function without the addition of sharks. It is a shame that something as simple as a Hollywood film can strike up a rebellion against an animal that is only trying to survive.
Earth Island Institute) It is hard to fathom how important sharks, as well as marine biodiversity as a whole, are to the health of the world. These two components hold the weight of an ecosystem on their backs, and they need our help to carry the load. Now that the damage has been done, the only way we can fix it is to advocate and educate. It is my only hope that you will find the inspiration to help preserve the conglomeration of species the ocean holds and the sharks which hold it together.