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Saving Sharks: Understanding and Protecting Our Ocean's Apex Predators

An in-depth look on why sharks are a key element in saving our oceans

By Jenn Alshemary and Steven Apsley

This blog post summarizes an academic paper written by Jenn Alshemary as an undergraduate degree requirement. No links in this article are sponsored and the authors received no financial compensation.

A shark swimming in the ocean in Oahu, Hawaii
Photos by Steven Apsley (@hawaiian.hokie)

Sharks have roamed our oceans for over 450 million years, symbolizing strength and mystery in many cultures. However, the fear instilled by the 1975 movie "Jaws" has contributed significantly to their decline, portraying sharks as monstrous predators. This misconception, along with other factors like overfishing and climate change, poses severe threats to their existence and, by extension, our marine ecosystems.

The Ecological Role of Sharks

Sharks play a crucial role in maintaining the health and balance of our oceans. As apex predators, sharks regulate the populations of species below them in the food chain, preventing any single group from overwhelming the ecosystem. If there are too many predators in the middle of the food chain, there won’t be enough food. If there are too many prey at the bottom of the food chain, they may overuse resources that the ocean has to offer to sustain life and erode habitat. This crucial balance ensures biodiversity, crucial for robust oceanic environments that adapt to changes and support various life forms. Sharks are utilized to help gauge the health of the ocean; the more sharks that are present the better it is for the entire ecosystem.

Sharks are not only imperative for the ocean, but they are also essential for human survival. Sharks help reduce more than half of the manufactured carbon levels in our atmosphere. The natural food source of sharks are dead and decaying animals that scatter the ocean floor. These Apex predators enjoy scavenging for an easy meal, and by consuming these rotting delicacies, they prevent the carbon from rising to the surface. This positively impacts global warming and climate change.

A galapagos shark on the north shore of Hawaii

Economic and Health Benefits

Sharks also have a significant impact on human economies and health. Ecotourism, including shark diving, has become a vital source of income for many coastal communities, promoting a sustainable approach to wildlife tourism. These tours often erases the preexisting anxiety that was a result of the fear-mongering in popular media, and proves that under normal circumstances, the sharks are not interested in humans. The global shark diving industry generated $314 million per year, directly supporting 10,000 jobs. This is expected to double within the next 20 years, generating more than $780 million per year.

Moreover, research on shark biology has led to medical breakthroughs such as improved treatments for bacterial infections and blood coagulation disorders. Shark tissue is known to have anticoagulant, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial properties, and scientists studying the tissue have found invaluable information to treat viruses, cystic fibrosis, and prevent infection. Perhaps the most exciting medical breakthrough is researchers identifying cancer immunity genes in sharks. Scientists are now creating drugs that mimic shark immune systems, and believed to help pulmonary fibrosis and other cancer-related diseases in future.

Threats to Sharks

Despite their importance, sharks face numerous threats—overfishing, habitat destruction, and the brutal practice of shark finning. Overfishing is a primary threat, with many sharks caught for their meat and fins, or accidentally as bycatch in commercial fisheries. The cruel practice of shark finning involves slicing off the shark's fins and throwing the still-living animal back into the ocean, where it often dies from suffocation or predation. This practice is driven by the high demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some cultures.

Additionally, habitat destruction from coastal development, pollution, and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling degrade crucial shark habitats. Climate change further exacerbates these threats, disrupting the availability of prey and altering migratory patterns. All of these activities not only reduce shark populations but also damage the entire marine ecosystem, leading to decreased biodiversity and disrupted food chains.

A blacktip reef shark resting on the bottom of the ocean

Conservation Efforts on the Rise

In response to these threats, a global effort in conservation is crucial for shark survival. Conservation initiatives are gaining momentum, with organizations and some fisheries committing to sustainable practices. Establishing marine protected areas can help sustain shark populations, especially where overfishing and pollution has been a historical issue. NOAA, the EPA, and many nonprofit organizations work tirelessly to try to offer protection to the animals seeking sanctuary in the waters surrounding metropolitan areas. Enforcing laws and international agreements that ban shark finning and regulate fisheries is also vital, requiring the cooperation of governments and international organizations.

Moreover, public education and advocacy play key roles in changing perceptions and reducing demand for shark products. Despite being a critical part of the ocean ecosystem, sharks are often underrepresented in ocean conservation efforts. This is partially due to the massive number of already pressing issues in ocean conservationism, but also a general lack of knowledge on the crucial role sharks play. Public participation in conservation efforts, alongside scientific research on shark biology, behavior, and ecology can help inform effective conservation strategies and policies.

A freediver swimming with sharks on the North Shore of Oahu

Ways to Help:

Participating in shark conservation efforts in Hawai'i. offers everyday people a unique opportunity to contribute to the health of marine ecosystems. Here are some actionable ways you can get involved:

  1. Support Responsible Shark Tours: Engage with eco-friendly shark tour operators who adhere to respectful wildlife viewing practices. These tours not only provide education about the importance of sharks in our oceans but also advocate for their protection. By choosing responsible tours, you help promote a sustainable model that values conservation over exploitation. Hawaii Adventure Diving and Go Adventure Hawaii are both great options we've had personal experience with.

  2. Volunteer for Local Conservation Groups: Many non-profit organizations in Oahu focus on marine conservation and offer volunteer opportunities. By donating your time, you can help with beach clean-ups, educational outreach, and other activities that contribute to the overall health of the ocean and its inhabitants. Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR), 808 Cleanups, and Mālama i nāna Honu are great volunteer organizations to get involved with. Nudiwear also co-sponsors PADI Dive Against Debris cleanups around the island.

  3. Educate Yourself and Others: Education is a powerful tool in conservation. Attend workshops and seminars to learn more about sharks and their role in the ecosystem. Share this knowledge with friends and family to spread awareness and correct misconceptions about sharks as mere predators. PADI dive shops around the island offer PADI AWARE courses specifically on shark conservation.

  4. Advocate for Protective Legislation: Stay informed about local and international laws affecting sharks and marine life. Support policies that promote sustainable fishing and protect marine areas. Writing to local representatives or signing petitions can make a significant impact on conservation efforts. Shark Stewards and the PADI AWARE Foundation are great organizations that advocate for protective legislation.

  5. Reduce Plastic Waste: Plastic pollution is a severe threat to marine life, including sharks. By reducing your plastic consumption and participating in local beach clean-up events, you help decrease the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, thus protecting the natural habitat of sharks and other marine species.

In a November 8, 2022, interview with Steven Spielberg he admitted: “I truly and to this day regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that.That's one of the things I still fear, not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen which happened after 1975.”

The survival of sharks is not just about saving a single species but about preserving the health of our entire oceanic ecosystem. It requires a global effort of regulation, education, and conservation practices. The continued existence of sharks is a testament to the health of our planet's largest and most important ecosystem—the ocean. Through collective efforts to understand and protect sharks, we can ensure that sharks continue to thrive, maintaining the delicate balance of marine life that is so vital to our own survival.


Read the Full Research Paper:

Photos contained in the paper by Matheus C.A. Pacheco (@mattycap_)

Save the Sharks, Save Our Oceans
Download PDF • 1.65MB


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