Grace Hanley, OECD Environment Directorate
As an American, it’s nearly impossible to go through summer without hearing the chatter or joining in on the festivities around “Shark Week.” In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s an annual week-long television series produced by the Discovery Channel that features all sorts of action-packed shark videos. People host parties carving shark heads out of watermelons, while sporting fin hats and snacking on all sorts of marine-themed appetizers. It’s a week to celebrate and learn about these amazing creatures that have been around for over 400 million years, surviving 5 major planet extinctions. But right now, sharks are fighting against becoming the sixth major extinction, and it’s our fault.
It’s important that we expose the ugly truth about the endangerment of sharks so that we can start taking action to adequately protect them. To start, humans are their number one predator. This is largely attributed to overfishing—and illegally for that matter. Humans reportedly kill 100 million sharks each year. As highlighted in “Racing Extinction,” a film that exposes the threats to shark endangerment, wildlife trade is second to the drug market in terms of profit. This makes conservation an even greater challenge, as there are significant economic incentives for traffickers.
To make matters worse, sharks have a low reproduction rate and thus cannot recover their populations quickly or easily. For some species, such as whale sharks, maturity is reached at the age of 30, and most are caught before they have the chance to repopulate. In extreme cases, the wait can be a century—no, that’s not an exaggeration. The Greenland shark, which was recently reported to shatter the longevity record as the longest lived vertebrate, is predicted to live for more than 400 years. With this considered, the females becoming ready to reproduce after they turn 156 seems to prove that it really is all relative. However, it also speaks to the challenges of reproduction, as it takes a substantial amount of time.
Over-fishing affects even deep-sea sharks, as they are targeted by the cosmetic industry for their liver oil, which has a desirable moisturizing appeal. On top of this, sharks are also exposed to threats directly caused by humans such as climate change, pollution and habitat destruction.
We should care because biodiversity matters and sharks play a key role in balancing their marine ecosystems. In fact, they have an efficient method of preying that is also beneficial to other marine life. They target the old, sick and slower fish, which helps maintain the health of other species populations. So contrary to their Jaws-inspired portrayal of being human-threatening cold-blood killers of summer beach-goers, sharks tend to target their feedings in a strategically balanced manner. Hence, our deep fear of sharks is unfounded, as the likelihood of humans being attacked by sharks is extremely low.
We need to be realistic about our fears and the statistics that support them. Despite the fact that it is also quite unlikely, we are much more likely to be killed by fireworks than sharks. Yet, we intentionally play with fire to celebrate events such as national holidays and then act as if stepping into the ocean is a summoning for certain death. The truth is we are much more aggressive toward sharks than they are to us and that needs to stop. With only 3% of the 500 species of sharks known to attack humans, we shouldn’t be so worried about attacks.
However, we should be worried about losing sharks because we need them. Without sharks, the marine ecosystem will lose its balance as it loses its top predator. Removing sharks will trigger a trophic cascade effect on the marine ecosystem, with the potential to permanently alter it. The presence of sharks—and even the fear they incite, has a positive influence on ecosystems. For example, a group of scientists in Hawaii found that their presence encouraged turtles to graze over a broader area of sea grass rather than focus on the best quality of sea grass and deplete a concentrated area, which they would do had they not had the lingering threat of sharks influencing their feeding patterns.
The stability of our planet requires a balance—and unfortunately, humans tend to be at fault for disturbing that balance. Maintaining a healthy equilibrium of biodiversity is critical to the well-being of the planet and we have the power to responsibly control this, so long as we are willing to change our habits. The enthusiasm for Shark Week is a positive example of celebrating our biodiversity, but sitting down to a “delicacy” meal of shark fin soup shows we still have a long way to go. If we want to continue celebrating our biodiversity, it is important that we educate ourselves on the best ways to protect it.
The good news is, now is the perfect time to act. In 2010, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) declared 2011-2020 to be the “Decade of Biodiversity.” More importantly, the CBD set forth the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity to eliminate the idea that biodiversity and ecosystem services are separate from the goals of development and growth. In November of this year, the Parties will meet again in Mexico for COP 13 to discuss the integration of biodiversity into relevant policy sectors.
It has become increasingly evident that the biodiversity within our ecosystems is a vital component to our life and we must implement policies that not only reflect that message, but also sufficiently protect it. Moreover, ecosystems have proved to be adaptable in both positive and negative ways as species have become transient due to changes in their habitats caused by climate change, pollution, and other factors. Therefore, the importance of a global consensus that encourages the integration of biodiversity protection into legislation will be an integral part of our sustainable development as it will allow us to collectively protect our planet and shared heritage.