Shark Awareness Day: Sharks are more awesome than you think!

Throughout 2018 our marine biologists here at Love The Oceans will be doing blog posts on topics of Named Days. To keep up to date, follow this blog, also found under the ‘News’ tab on our website. Without further ado, in celebration of Shark Awareness Day 2018, I introduce our sixteenth blog in this marine series:

Shark Awareness Day: Sharks are more awesome than you think!

Sharks, arguably the most impressive predators in our oceans, are the subject of today’s blog in honour of Shark Awareness Day 2018, July 14th. Sharks are a widely misunderstood group of magnificent animals that are vital to the health of our oceans and, unfortunately, under serious threat due to human impacts.

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About 500 species of shark roam our seas and oceans. They are cartilaginous fish that, together with the rays, are grouped in the subclass of Elasmobranchs. Sharks come in all shapes and sizes and are found in almost every ocean habitat, from coral reefs and the open ocean to the deep sea and even under the Arctic ice. The smallest shark discovered to date, the dwarf lantern shark, fits in the palm of your hand, while the largest one, the whale shark, is the largest fish in the sea and can grow up to 20 meters.

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One of our staff members having an awesome encounter with a Whale Shark!

Sharks have been around for over 400 million years and have always been at the top of the foodweb, controlling organisms at lower levels and ensuring productivity and balance in the ocean’s ecosystems. It’s only in the last few decades that these predators have become prey, threatened and killed in increasingly large numbers by humans.

Many sharks are killed for the shark fin industry, a fishing practice whereby sharks are caught, fins removed, and then they are thrown back into the ocean to die. This is to meet the demand for shark fin soup, a highly-priced delicacy in Asia, bought and consumed to demonstrate affluence at special events like weddings.

Sharks are also very often caught unintentionally by net fisheries. This accidental killing of sharks is called bycatch and it poses additional threats to shark populations. In the last 35 years estimates indicate that global shark populations have decreased by around 90% and the life history characteristics of sharks mean their populations struggle to bounce back. Sharks are long-living and slow-growing animals that only reach sexual maturity after 10-15 years. They give birth to only a few pups at a time, which is why their populations are more vulnerable to collapse.

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The sad fate of sharks being finned

Sharks need protection in order to keep the balance in the oceans and give populations the chance to recover after being depleted. A big hurdle in shark conservation is the perception of sharks being dangerous, scary, killing machines – an image fuelled by films like ‘Jaws’ and the more recent ‘47 Meters Down’. Whilst sharks are impressive sharp-toothed hunters that look pretty badass, sadly they are way more threatened by us than we are by them. On average, less than 10 fatal shark attacks occur every year around the world: you are more likely to die taking a selfie or be struck by lightning. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by humans per year. That is over 11,000 sharks killed PER HOUR!  If this trend continues, shark populations will decline so drastically that entire oceanic ecosystems will collapse, which will lead to a cascade effect through our oceans, ultimately leading to commercial fisheries collapsing and a huge lack of fish protein.

So, if we want to keep benefitting from these ocean services, we need to raise awareness of the plight of our sharks and ensure they receive the protection they so desperately need.

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A tiger shark caught on a longline in Mozambique

Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. Around the world, many small and larger scale conservation organisations are trying to understand the ecology and behaviour of sharks and the effects of fisheries on their populations. Gathering scientific data is a vital process in understanding and eventually protecting sharks. Love the Oceans does this in Guinjata Bay in Southern Mozambique, where data on artisanal fisheries is collected by volunteers overseen by qualified marine biologists for almost 4 years now. Sharks (and rays) are frequently caught by longlines and gillnets within our research area, and even though these are fairly small scale fisheries, we don’t know how sustainable they are. Multiple years of data collection will result in a better understanding of the fishing practices in our area and eventually create a sustainable fishery in cooperation with the local fishermen. Apart from the scientific research, Love The Oceans also educates the next generation of fishermen: the kids in two local schools, on the importance of sharks, conservation and responsible marine resource management and teaches water safety with weekly swimming lessons.

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One of Love The Oceans’ team teaching the kids about Whale Sharks

To sum it up, we are HUGE FANS of sharks and as scuba divers we value more than anyone the experience of seeing these animals thriving in their natural environment. Shark Awareness Day doesn’t mean you have to run into the ocean to hug a tiger shark, but Love The Oceans invites you to celebrate this day by appreciating the beauty of sharks and their necessity for balanced and properly functioning ocean ecosystems from which we all enjoy the benefits.

Happy Shark Awareness Day, everyone!!!

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