Sharks have a reputation for being cold-blooded killers thanks to movies like Jaws and The Shallows. But in reality, sharks should be the ones terrified of humans – not the other way around. Each year, we kill 100 million sharks in fisheries – yes, 100 million. Between 2006 and 2010, the annual count of fatal shark attacks was around 4.
Why Shark Conservation is Important
In their domain, sharks are at the top of the food chain. And with few natural predators, these sea creatures play an important role in the structure of marine communities. Sharks directly influence prey populations and distribution, which ultimately has a regulating effect that permeates down the food chain to the tiniest of phytoplankton.
Researchers have found that this type of regulation leads to a more diverse, resilient and healthier ecosystem. In fact, an untouched reef environment would require a large number of sharks to maintain a healthy ecological balance.
Aside from maintaining balance, sharks are also a tourist attraction – as strange as that sounds. A study from 2012 found that shark diving ecotourism brought in $18 million per year.
Sharks are also particularly vulnerable to overfishing. They reach sexual maturity later in life, they grow slowly, and they only give birth to a small number of young. Their fins are also highly prized in some parts of the world for shark fin soup.
Shark Conservation Efforts Are Making Strides
Groups like Virgin Unite and Pew Charitable Trusts have focused on both the ecological and economic benefits to protecting sharks, and have pushed governments to implement more comprehensive conservation programs.
As a result, several governments around the world have developed shark sanctuaries. Other countries have placed partial bans on shark fishing in certain areas, while others have added shark protections to marine protected areas. Some governments have outright banned shark fishing in their EEZ (exclusive economic zone).
Palau was the first to declare a shark sanctuary, and several nations have followed suit. A total of 20 EEZ sanctuaries now exist in 19 countries. Three new sanctuaries were announced and implemented in 2016.
The entire EEZs of the Cayman Islands and Saint Maarten are off limits to shark fishing, and the Galapagos Marine Sanctuary also protects shark habitat.
Five other sanctuaries are in the works for next year, including those in Grenada and Curacao, which will transform their entire EEZs into shark sanctuaries. The Philippines will also designate three areas as shark sanctuaries.
Combating Illegal Fishing
The creation of shark sanctuaries is a step in the right direction and will go a long way in protecting this important sea creature. But our work is not nearly done. Illegal fishing still takes place in these protected areas, and vast areas of the ocean are still unprotected.
Enforcement of existing sanctuaries is of the utmost importance, but it is equally important to push for fully-protected reserves, which offer the most protection. Expanding existing sanctuaries will allow for more effective preservation of sharks and the ocean’s natural biodiversity against human consumption and climate change.