Sharks are crucial to the ocean
Sharks, as an evolving species, have been around for c.450 million years. They're older than trees, have watched dinosaurs live, die and vanish, and they have survived the five great mass extinctions. They are superior and the perfect predator. Given their ability to adapt and endure repetitively, they must play a significant role in the environment.
And they do.
Sitting at the top of the food chain, sharks help maintain a balanced ecosystem that keeps the ocean healthy. They remove the sick and weak, they have very few natural predators (such as Orcas), and they feed on a variety of animals. All of this balances out marine populations.
They also preserve habitats. For example, their intimidating behaviour can prevent sea turtles from overgrazing on seagrass beds, thus ensuring that seagrass ecosystems aren't at risk either. This is the same with other kinds of underwater plants. Going beyond this, seagrasses can absorb and store carbon, which then prevents it from warming the atmosphere. Additionally, sharks themselves can store carbon in their bodies.
Facing their final days and threats
Now in the last fifty years, the global population of sharks has declined by a staggering 70%. More than a third of the shark species are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as they reach a terrifying declination of 90% or more. It's estimated that each year around 100 million sharks are killed; that's over 8,000 sharks every hour.
Humanity, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of their threats. Overfishing is the main threat as there is a high demand for shark fins and shark products, which affects each and every shark species. Bycatch, which is when unwanted marine life gets trapped in commercial fishing nets, is another problem as sharks often get caught in nets and discarded. Habitat loss is another major threat; this is often caused by climate change, pollution, and even recreational marine activities such as snorkelling and swimming can cause damage to fragile marine life.
In addition to the numerous threats they have, sharks are surprisingly vulnerable. They grow slowly and it can take years for them to reach maturity, which means that a lot of them are killed before they've had offspring. For example, the Greenland Shark, which can live for 400 years, doesn't reach sexual maturity until 150 years. Sharks also have long pregnancies with an average of 9-12 months; even then, they produce few offspring and sometimes they don't reproduce every year.
The domino effect of shark-less waters
The repercussions of sharks going extinct is frightening. Take the apex predator out of the picture and you create a chain reaction.
Without sharks, mid-level predators have an increase in population, whilst herbivorous fish populations decrease and with fewer algae-eating fish, coral reef systems are overwhelmed by algae. This then causes another problem as algae blooms take the oxygen out of the water; suffocating marine life.
Continuously, sharks, as stated before, prey on the weak and ill. If sharks are gone, weak and ill marine life will consequentially continue to live and weaken the larger population of their species. This would be through spreading illness and reproduction, which would weaken the genetic makeup of the species. Marine life would also face extinction as sharks wouldn't be around to keep predator populations in balance; instead, these other predators would increase, and prey would be at risk of over-consumption.
As mentioned previously, sharks can store carbon in themselves. Therefore, carbon levels would spike resulting in global warming speeding up if sharks became extinct.
There are no doubt numerous more consequences that the world would face if sharks ceased to exist in our waters. Like everything, they're here to serve a purpose and to keep the ocean balanced, healthy and happy. So why are we leading them to the brink of extinction?
Daily activities are more threatening than sharks
Contrary to popular belief, sharks aren't man-eating monsters that hunt humans. Like most animals, when provoked they will attack to defend themselves or their territory. Humans are guests in the ocean and the phrase 'shark infested waters' holds no purpose when we're the ones invading their home.
Each year worldwide, an average of 10 deaths are attributed to shark attacks. You're more likely to die from a champagne cork, driving, eating, sleeping and so many other ordinary everyday activities than you are from a shark.
You're more likely to die from a falling coconut than you are from a shark. Realistically, your chances of survival are probably better in the water than on land!
How you can help sharks
1) Educate Yourself
In order to help them, you need to understand them. Learn about the different species, their habitats and behaviours. How we impact their lives and how they impact ours.
2) Do Not Use Shark Products
This goes beyond shark fins and shark meat; other parts can be found in products. For instance, shark cartilage and oils can be found in beauty and health products. It's important to check to make sure you're not about to purchase anything that uses shark materials. Boycotting will eventually force companies to stop.
3) Reduce Your Seafood Consumption
Commercial fishing not only reduces the population of their food sources, but it also threatens sharks as they often get caught in nets, which leads to their deaths.
4) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
As always, plastic is a big threat to the ocean, including sharks, who can mistake the rubbish for food, or their prey will eat plastic. Consuming non-food products will lead to illness and death.
5) Donate and Volunteer
There are hundreds of shark conservation organisations that you can help with. Their purpose is to educate people, stop the unnecessary slaughtering of sharks and protect them as best as they can. Through them, you can contribute even more to the survival of sharks. You can help them!