[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ach year millions of viewers around the world tune into Discovery Channel for an entire week of programming dedicated to sharks. Companies come up with shark themed advertisements like comparing a razor to a great hammerhead or daring customers to be “bold,” by diving with sharks or eating a new flavor of chip. It is great to see so much attention focused on these amazing animals, but in reality these conversations should be happening year round. Whether you love them or hate them, sharks play a critical role in the health of our oceans. Case in point, we need sharks.
Things to Think About Year Round
Most sharks are top predators in the food chain and keep the ocean ecosystems balanced. They feed on injured and sick animals, helping to maintain a sustainable level in populations of animals below them in the food chain. I personally have been diving in parts of Indonesia where the sharks have been fished out and there are very few fish left and the coral reefs are dying.
Sharks are not man-eating monsters. On average five people die from shark bites (accidents) each year, while humans kill approximately 100 million sharks each year. They are killed primarily for their fins, used to make shark fin soup, but also for their meat and as by catch (non-targeted species). Shark finning is when the fins of a shark are cut off while the animal is still alive and the mutilated body is thrown back in the water to die.
Most of us are familiar with mercury when it comes to eating seafood. Mercury is a metal that bioaccumulates in ocean ecosystems. Animals cannot get rid of it, so the further up the food chain you go the higher the concentration of mercury. A study done by University of Miami’s RSMAS also found high concentrations of neurotoxins ( BMMA) in shark fins. These neurotoxins are linked to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig Disease( ALS). Even smaller sharks like spiny dogfish, often used in fish and chips, have high mercury levels and can cause serious health risks if consumed.
Sharks can get cancer, so taking pills derived from shark parts will not prevent cancer. Even if sharks were immune to cancer, the pills would still not have an impact. I like shark biologist David Shiffman’s analogy, “Even if they didn’t get cancer, eating shark products won’t cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball.”
Sharks do not belong in jars or as souvenirs on our walls. If you have even been to a souvenir shop in South Florida than you have probably seen shark jaws or shark fetuses in jars for sale. The shark fetuses are creepy and completely unnecessary.
Shark diving is a multi-billion dollar industry globally and has shown a positive impact on shark protection. The best way to fight misconceptions about sharks is to see them in the wild and on their terms. In the Bahamas alone, there are multiple shark diving destinations including Bimini, Freeport and Cat Island.
Ways to Make Every Week Shark Week
Don’t be afraid to ask what it is you are eating and choose sustainable seafood. Oceans around the world are heavily overfished, so chose species of fish that are fast growing and breed often. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a Safe Seafood guide that can fit in your wallet. Also, don’t be afraid to ask what exactly the “catch of day” is? A study released by Oceana in 2012 found, “31% of seafood mislabeled in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale-area during a survey conducted in 2011-2012. Fraud was detected in half of the 14 different types of fish collected, with snappers and white tuna being the most frequently mislabeled.”
Do not buy shark products. This includes shark cartilage pills, shark souvenirs and products containing shark liver oil (squalene). This oil is found not only in pills, but also lotions and make-ups.
Go see sharks. If you are a scuba diver chances are you have encountered a shark, but if not you should definitely book a trip. If you are not a diver there are snorkeling, cage diving and viewing from the boat options. The Bimini Sands offers Caribbean reef shark snorkeling encounters for the whole family, while Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center offers world-class great hammerhead encounters.
Learn the facts.
- There are over 500 species of sharks and they are found in every ocean around the world.
- Sharks do not lay thousands of eggs like other fish. In fact, some sharks give birth to a single pup (baby sharks are called pups).
- Greenland sharks are believed to live up to 200 years.
- Lemon sharks can bite their own tails.
- Tiger Sharks can invert their stomachs.
- A frilled shark can be pregnant for up to 3.5 years.
- Goblin sharks have pink skin.
- Megalodon was a real shark, but is now extinct.
- The term “Elasmobranch” is a collective name for sharks, skates and rays. Elasmobranchs have a skeleton made of cartilage, no swim bladders, five to seven pairs of gills and skin made up of small dermal denticles.
- A study done by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reported 25% of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
I am thrilled that sharks at least get one week of intense attention, but in reality they deserve a lot more.
Jillian Morris Brake, the executive director and education coordinator at Oceanic all-stars and founder of Sharks4Kids, is an ocean educator, advocate and explorer. “In this underwater world I wear many hats, which makes each day completely different from the last and keeps me on my toes. I am a free diver, scuba instructor, photographer, educator, outreach coordinator, rebreather diver, videographer, writer, underwater model, marine biologist and ocean advocate.” For more information, visit oceanicallstars.com.