Every year we celebrate Shark Week and we are reminded that we need to take action to protect these magnificent creatures now – before we lose them forever.
Photos by: Shawn Heinrichs
Sharks are an essential part of the ocean ecosystems that ultimately support us all. Where I live, in the Caribbean, we know that healthy coral reefs need sharks – their apex predator – to survive. Fewer sharks means less healthy coral and less fish, and that threatens food security, tourism, and the ability of reefs to buffer the impacts of major storm events and help make our coastal areas more resilient to change. We depend on sharks in more ways than many people realise.
But, sadly, we also hunt them in staggering numbers. Sharks may have sharper teeth, but there is no doubt that we are the more frightening species. Every year more than 100 million sharks are killed around the world, to be turned into bowls of soup, lipstick, gel caps or pet food. By catch and the gruesome practice of finning and then throwing the rest of the shark overboard dead or dying are two major threats to the survival of these iconic ocean predators. Tragically, the consequences of our actions have led to 11 species of shark being critically endangered, 15 endangered, and 48 in a vulnerable state, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That means about 30% of shark species are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction. For shark-lovers like me, and many millions of people around the world, this is unacceptable.
I have had incredible experiences swimming with many species of sharks over the years – and even been kissed by one, a badge of honour that I wear with pride. As anyone who has had the privilege to be around them will tell you, when you are close to a shark you become enveloped in a deep sense of calmness and serenity – and must always behave as a respectful visitor in their ocean home. The reality is a far cry from the terror you might expect after years of being bombarded by misguided stories portraying sharks as the most ferocious and dangerous killers of the sea, actively out to get us. Truth be told, sharks very rarely attack humans, while we are an existential threat to these charismatic but vulnerable predators.
Our threat to sharks is not limited to fishing. Perhaps even more worrying as we look to the future is the accelerating warming of the ocean, plastic pollution and the impacts that myriad manmade land-based activities are having on the ocean. Climate change is fundamentally altering shark habitats, and therefore their habits. A recent study by scientists at the University of Southampton predicts that 10 species of shark currently found in warmer parts of the world could inhabit seas around the UK within the next 30 years due to rising ocean temperatures. This could include 20-foot hammerheads and possibly even great white sharks around the coast of Cornwall. Right on schedule came some of the scaremongering articles about the impending danger of shark-attacks, but the real reason alarm bells should be ringing is because of climate change and the impacts these new predators could have on native marine species (not human ones!). We need to do more to protect sharks, and we need to do it now. All of us can start by being ocean-wise consumers, shifting to renewables, reducing our plastic use and standing up for our fellow toothy friends. This Shark Week 2018 is the perfect opportunity to raise awareness about the threats sharks are facing and the important role they play in our world.
This Shark Week, it’s worth taking the time to value a species that have survived and thrived in our ocean for over 400 million years. Let’s celebrate their beauty and protect these marvelous creatures, so future generations can be lucky enough to share a planet with them. Let’s share the wonder and celebrate the majesty of the world’s sharks this Shark Week. Here’s to another 400 million years! This article is inspired by Richard Branson’s initiative to protect the Ocean and its precious jewels through his Virgin Unite programme.