Cape Cod is becoming accustomed to the presence of great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in its waters during the busy summer months. With the plentiful population of seals the sharks have been more visible in the last couple of years. While this has created some tense moments for beachgoers and swimmers, it has provided many opportunities for researchers to learn more about these elusive and fascinating animals. Several individuals have been successfully tagged and new data has been collected regarding their migration and feeding habits.
Hopefully as we learn more about sharks a greater understanding of their ecological role will develop. This can improve the shark’s public image that is quite negative since the release of the movie “Jaws” many years ago. Indeed, all predators in both the terrestrial and aquatic environments have struggled to survive the prejudices of humans. Whether people are thinking about coyotes or bobcats or sharks, they all represent an important component to an ecosystem’s food web.
Worldwide sharks are in trouble. With over 400 species, nearly one-third are threatened with extinction. Many of them are killed accidentally as bycatch from fishing operations. In fact nearly 100 million sharks are killed each year throughout the world’s ocean. We are still learning about their life cycles, but some sharks reproduce slowly with only one pup at a time. The environmental impact of losing this many animals at the top of the food web is unknown.
Probably the most insidious and destructive activity is shark finning. After capture the shark’s fins are cut off and the animal is thrown back into the water where it quickly perishes. This atrocity occurs in order to provide shark fin soup in places like China. The Shark Conservation Act of 2010 passed by the U.S. congress and signed by the president prohibits shark finning in American waters.
Ignorance of shark behavior and ecology has led to their demise. Conservation efforts are just beginning as the public learns that sharks are not man-eaters but beneficial animals that are highly adapted to their marine world and help control the burgeoning populations of other species. It would be a tragedy if we were to lose these magnificent creatures because of unfounded human fears. The more we know, the more likely the public will understand why sharks deserve protection from finning and other destructive practices. The wholesale slaughter of sharks for any reason must stop. These animals have existed for millions of years and their role in the marine food web is essential for other species as well.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.