whale sharks help the blue planet

Why Sharks Are Our Oceans’ Superheroes

8 mins

Able to curb climate change, help save coral reefs and safeguard seagrass, sharks are more remarkable than ruthless, and should be revered not feared

One of earth’s most misunderstood and demonised creatures, cold-blooded sharks and their bites are the stuff of sensational headlines and Hollywood scripts. A misguided fear, it’s largely based on the toothy great white – cast as the bloodthirsty baddie in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller: Jaws.

In reality, more people are killed by lightning strikes than shark attacks. And great whites are just one of 500-plus species – which include the flexitarian bonnethead and feline-eyed chain catshark – that call our open oceans, coral reefs and sea floor home.

great white sharks have given sharks a bad name
Great White Sharks have been demonised in Hollywood films but more people are killed by lightning than sharks

Sharks are our oceans superheroes, not super-villains. In fact, we should be afraid for sharks rather than of them. Critical in maintaining the delicate balance of marine life, these predatory fish have patrolled our blue planet’s waters for 400 million years, surviving five mass extinctions in the process. 

In reality, more people are killed by lightning strikes than shark attacks each year

But these formidable fish have found themselves wading into increasingly troubled waters. According to the World Wild Fund (WWF), one third of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction globally, a plight not helped by their painfully slow reproduction rates.

Ocean Allies

tiger sharks keep ecosystems in balance
Tiger Sharks safeguard seagrass and help balance the ecosystems

‘Like all keystone species, sharks keep ecosystems in balance,’ Vice President of Conservation Programs and Partnerships at Seattle Aquarium and ocean advocate Dr Erin Meyer tells The Ethicalist. Standing at the pinnacle of the food chain – on which hundreds of millions of people also rely – sharks not only regulate prey populations in the ocean, but keep them healthier by feeding on sick or injured individuals as well as invasive species. 

Deep-sea dwelling sharks can even curb climate change by consuming dead matter and carcasses, capturing huge amounts of carbon in the process. Meanwhile, their diving behaviour helps transport nutrients from deeper waters to vulnerable coral reefs. 

Each year, 100 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins – a lucrative industry driven by the unpalatable taste for shark fin soup: a so-called cure-all in China and Southeast Asia

Another critical marine habitat that sharks support, and even safeguard, are seagrasses. Last summer, a Bahamian seagrass meadow the size of Portugal was mapped with some unlikely team members: tiger sharks, already fitted with satellite tags and cameras. These ocean allies are one of the world’s better-known sharks.

Much like people, these living, swimming fossils come in all shapes and sizes; from the elusive eight-inch-long Dwarf Lantern to school-bus-sized whale sharks. Dubbed the ‘gentle giants of the ocean,’ plankton-eating whale sharks were historically hunted for their meat and liver oil. In the past 75 years, their global population has halved, with strikes from cargo ships cited as a major reason according to a study by Marine Biological Association (MBA).

Blood In The Water

a young shark caught in bycatch
A young shark is caught in bycatch by commercial fishery vessel

A tsunami of stressors is edging sharks closer to extinction; from poor governance and ocean pollution to vessel collisions and habitat loss. Undermining marine food webs and deemed the number one menace is overfishing.

Commercial fisheries are responsible for bycatch – the capture of unintended marine species by fishing vessels – which can stress, injure, or worse still, fatally wound sharks, with endangered great hammerheads being particularly vulnerable.

It’s estimated that over the course of its lifetime, a live shark is worth $1.6 million versus $200 dead. And yet, each year, some 100 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins – a lucrative industry driven by the unpalatable taste for shark fin soup: a so-called cure-all in China and Southeast Asia. Tossed back into the ocean like a piece of trash, unable to swim without their fins, these helpless creatures die a slow and painful death from blood loss, suffocation and drowning.

Rewilding Our Oceans 

Species like grey wolf and bison have been successfully rewilded on land, so could the same approach be used for marine life in our oceans? This year, the world’s first endangered shark rewilding program was launched to try and recover the cutest shark you’ve never heard of: the endangered zebra.

Also known as leopard sharks on account of their spots, which replace their distinctive white stripes as they mature, these agile swimmers are characteristically gentle.

‘Overfishing is the main factor driving the decline in populations of Indo-Pacific leopard sharks all across the Indo-West Pacific,’ explains Erin Meyer. She’s Chair of the StAR Project Steering Committee – founded by a new global initiative called ReShark, which is working to revive endangered zebra shark populations in one of their known historic ranges: Raja Ampat.

Unlike their shark sisters, which give birth to live young, zebra sharks lay egg capsules known as ‘mermaid purses,’ making them ideal candidates for a captive breeding and release programme

A paradisical archipelago off the coast of West Papua in Indonesia, it’s located in the Coral Triangle, where lies 30 per cent of the planet’s coral reefs. Despite its off-the-charts biodiversity, a pitiful three zebra sharks were discovered in Raja Ampat’s waters between 2001 and 2021. 

Unlike their shark sisters, which give birth to live young, zebra sharks lay egg capsules known as ‘mermaid purses,’ making them ideal candidates for a captive breeding and release programme. ‘Efforts to reshark the ocean would not be possible without aquariums,’ Meyer explains. ‘They hold the expertise and experience necessary to breed, rear, and care for sharks and rays.’ 

leopard shark rewinding our oceans

The four pups released so far were hatched from eggs bred at Australia’s SEA LiFE Sydney: one of 44 aquariums and 15 countries collaborating on the project. But their journey from egg to juvenile is not without its challenges, as StAR Program Project Manager Nesha Ichida tells The Ethicalist. The hands-on Indonesian marine conservationist was involved in everything from fundraising to managing the custom-built over-water shark hatcheries.

‘One hatchery uses completely local materials: its wooden beams are harvested locally, the roof and walls thatched by local women. And the local community are also involved in sustainably harvesting the food for the baby sharks,’ Ichida says. 

‘Shark nannies’ – mostly Jakarta Aquarium-trained university students – supervise the zebra sharks from pup tank to outdoor sea pen in preparation for Raja Ampat’s aquamarine lagoons. It’s here that microchip and acoustic-tagged juveniles Charlie and Kathlyn were released in January, followed by Audrey, and, as of last week, Mali. ‘If we release 100 eggs a year over the next five years, zebra shark populations should recover within the 20th year,’ Ichida says.

Turning The Tide

Efforts to rebuild shark populations extend from Northwest Atlantic’s Cape Cod to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Despite Baja’s Sea of Cortez’s famously nutrient-rich waters, its shark populations have collapsed in recent years. Rallying to reverse their fate is non-profit organisation Orgcas: a team of 13 women made up of pilots, photographers, lawyers and ecologists. Their ambitious goal: to convert local artisanal fishermen communities who’ve traditionally fished for sharks, to nature-based tourism.

Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away on the UK’s chillier Welsh Coast, wannabe citizen scientists are being enlisted to help identify some of Llyn Peninsula’s 25 species of sharks, rays and skates, which include the critically endangered Angel shark. It’s part of a new conservation initiative called Sharks Inspiring Action and Research with Communities (SIARC).

Technology also has a part to play in shark conservation, particularly in combating overfishing from unsustainable practices. Trialled last year in Southern France,  SharkGuard is a battery-powered gadget designed to attach to longline fishing rigs, which scares off rays and sharks by emitting an electrical pulse before they get ensnared in fishing gear. Initial experiments were promising, resulting in 91 per cent fewer sharks and 71 per cent fewer ray captures.

And in yet another win for sharks, this June, Great Britain made the landmark decision to pass the Shark Fins Act, prohibiting the import and export of any shark fin product. Director of Conservation for UK-based NGO the Shark Trust, Ali Hood tells The Ethicalist: ‘This creates a more challenging environment for would-be traders, simplifying customs checks and enabling the UK to hold other countries to the same standards to which we hold ourselves.’ 

Whilst the future of sharks remains uncertain, one thing is crystal clear: for the sake of our oceans’ health and planet at large, now more than ever, sharks need to be thrown a lifeline. The narrative needs to change around these evolutionary wonders, sooner rather than later.

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