Sharks have long been equated as these fearsome predators that have a taste for blood. The image of their fin appearing above water has been conditioned to instill fear in even the bravest people. These stigmas, most commonly represented in the media and popular culture, have led to an unhealthy relationship with these creatures. Believing that these predators have ill-intent, humans overharvest and kill sharks at an alarming rate without fear of the consequences. Even with action being taken all over the world to protect these animals, it must be accompanied with a change in perception to truly save them.
Despite the image that sharks should be feared for simply existing, they are perfectly suited for their environments that humans are merely guests in when entering the ocean. Streamlining down to their indented scales, called dermal denticles, and sensitive electrosensory organs, called ampullae of Lorenzini, adapt them for their specific niche. These characteristics aid them in prey capture that helps them regulate and maintain the health of their ecosystems. Removing sharks from their environment results in unbalanced food webs, with their prey losing a predatory threat. With many sharks being top predators in their environment, their removal would have cascading effects that would produce an overabundance of their prey, restructuring entire food webs. Not only do sharks keep their ecosystems balanced, but they also keep our oceans clean by removing sick and injured fish.
Sharks are just as important to the integrity of their environments as ours because of the ecosystem services that they provide. Supporting ecosystem services encompass the regulatory abilities of sharks. Their role in maintaining biodiversity is essential for reducing overgrazing and the introduction of new predators. Biodiversity creates environments that are more productive for nutrient cycling. Sharks keep primary producers, such as seagrasses and algae, balanced and healthy with stable oxygen production and nitrogen uptake levels. These processes are important for human condition and well-being.
[Photo: Chelle Blais - Baylie (left) visiting the juvenile lemon shark nursery]
Being able to enter and experience a shark’s world and establish mutual respect with them is the biggest shifter for the general “fear” perception embedded in many minds. Once you enter the water and see how well-adapted and comfortable these animals are in their environment, all fear subsides as you are completely immersed in their world. This has become a privilege provided by cultural ecosystem services, such as dive tourism, as many sharks are disappearing from previously popular sites. Not only is it less exciting and disappointing to not share the waters with sharks, but it has consequences on countries that depend on shark diving for their economy. Bimini, Bahamas, is one of the top places in the world to experience diving with sharks, but even as one of the world's sharkiest waters, the building of new infrastructure damages vital habitats for sharks. It could have detrimental impacts in the future if it is allowed to persist, negatively affecting the economy of the Bahamas.
[Photo: Chelle Blais - Baylie and Scylla the Great Hammerhead in Bimini]
Because of their importance in the ecosystem, economy, and human well-being, a world without sharks is much scarier than a world with them. The viewpoint from popular media outlets on the role that sharks play continues to falsify their true intent and negatively affect many people's minds towards them. Changing the conversation about them from menacing, blood-thirsty beings to fascinating, beautiful animals by increasingly exposing why they are better alive than dead is a critical first step. Seeing one picture or learning one cool fact can resonate and shift mindsets. If Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws, was able to change and become an advocate for these creatures and the marine ecosystem as a whole, then everyone can care for the protection of these creatures. Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance/Mission Blue, said it best:
“Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you're lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you're in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don't see sharks.”
I want to be able to slip under the water and continue to share it with these amazing creatures. Seeing them in their natural environment gives you a feeling of peace that can only be experienced. Everyone deserves to experience it. But, I fear for a world where people will not be able to just because they do not understand them.
You should, too.
[Photo: David Palfrey]