Shark Conservation Vs. The Media

We have seen a lot of shark coverage in the media recently.  Last month the Discovery Channel aired their annual “Shark Week” – a week focused on documentaries and specials about sharks.  There have also been several news stories focused on a spate of attacks and sightings along East Coast beaches.  A surfer was filmed during competition fighting off a shark in South Africa.  But it begs the question, is all this negative media attention making shark conservation more difficult?

About Sharks

Nurse Shark in the Caribbean

Nurse Shark in the Caribbean

There are over 400 species of sharks in our oceans.  These range from the huge but gentle whale shark, to the well-known great white, to my two favorites, epaulette sharks and wobbegongs.  Despite this huge diversity, sharks have many shared traits.  Sharks are all cartilaginous fish, which means that their skeleton is made of cartilage, which is the same as rays and skates.  Sharks grow slowly, which means that they reach reproductive age later than many other fish.  In addition, they have a slow rate of reproduction.  Sharks reproduce through internal fertilization, with a majority of species then giving birth to live young.  This reproductive strategy has evolved to allow sharks to produce a few well-developed young.  This strategy is employed not just by sharks, but by many other animals (including humans) to try to ensure the survival of their young, and, therefore, the survival of their species; this strategy is termed K-selection by ecologists.

Threats to Sharks

Sharks face a variety of threats to their survival, especially from overfishing and death as bycatch, both of which lead to rapid population decline.  Because sharks are K-selected species with a low reproductive rate, they are especially vulnerable to population decline.  Think of it this way: once a large number of individuals has been removed from a population, it takes a long time for new sharks to be born and become reproducing adults, before being able to produce their own young and help with repopulation.

The rising popularity of shark fin soup, found in various Asian countries, has led to a significant increase in the number of people fishing for sharks.  Shark fins can collect fishermen a fairly large sum of money, which leads many poor fishermen into the shark fin trade.  Shark fishing is also increasing rapidly in many places for shark meat intended for consumption.  In addition to direct fishing for shark fins and meat, individuals are often accidentally caught up in nets or longlines of commercial fisheries looking to catch other fish species.  Once caught, sharks are often left to die as accidental bycatch, further decreasing shark population sizes.

One of my favorite sharks - the Raja Epaulette Shark! This species is found only in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Laura Cutler.

One of my favorite sharks – the Raja Epaulette Shark! This species is found only in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of Laura Cutler.

So How Can I Help?

In general, worldwide management is non-existent or, if it exists, is inefficient and unable to control the overfishing of sharks; however, many activists and non-profit organizations are increasing awareness of shark conservation, especially with respect to the shark fin trade.  There are many large organizations working to promote top-down conservation strategies, working with governments to improve fisheries management and monitoring, stop illegal shark finning, regulate international trade, and promote numerous other initiatives to protect sharks.  In addition, there are also many small organizations engaged in shark research and grassroots conservation worldwide.  Many of these organizations are open to volunteers, often relying upon these volunteers to help collect data for their research, and, in many cases, to aid in the funding of the project.  Even if you cannot donate money to assist in research and conservation, or even if you choose not to participate as a volunteer on a conservation expedition, you can always support shark conservation by making those around you aware of the threats that sharks are facing worldwide and explain to them the importance of shark conservation!

Back to the Media

Sharks are incredible, majestic animals, and are considered a true treat when encountered by snorkelers and scuba divers, but rarely do we see this opinion in our media.  I admit that I did not watch much of this year’s shark week, but over the past few years I have noticed that there is special after special focusing on shark attacks: anything from stories of attacks on surfers and swimmers to tests to see how hard a shark is biting.  These types of shows, while often interesting and intriguing, lead to many people fearing sharks.  Even though sharks are facing huge threats to their survival, shark conservation can be a tough sell, especially when the general public is afraid and sees sharks as scary animals that swim around attacking humans.  And as this fear is perpetuated in the media, it is able to take hold of a large portion of the population, making it more difficult to convince the public that shark conservation is important.   amazing animals that play a vital role in the marine ecosystem, and it is important to conserve sharks worldwide.  In the end, the number of sharks that kill people is miniscule compared with the number of sharks that humans kill.  It seems to me that we could use a different story in the media: one that shows sharks as amazing animals playing an important role in the marine ecosystem, and that brings awareness to shark conservation instead of promoting fear.