Changing the Great White’s bad reputation

By: Ashley Gustafson

In the past, sharks have been portrayed in movies, literature, and media as demonic, flesh crazed eating machines. Notorious for their massive size and never ending teeth, the Great white shark has been in the center of this negative press for decades. Even with more education and programs for the general public, sharks still get a bad rap for nothing more than their natural, predatory instincts. Every spring massive shark migrations terrify the countless thousands of spring breakers that travel to the warmer temperatures of southern coastal regions like Florida and California. The media and news reports plaster photos and videos of thousands of sharks all together close to recreational beaches where spring breakers seek refuge from the cold winters back at home. This spiral of negative press and inconclusive spitting of scare tactics at the public needs to end and sharks need to be seen for more than just monsters.

Big_SharkThere is a decline of sharks worldwide due to rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, over fishing, and downright fear. Much like “rattlesnake roundups” illegal shark fishing motivated by pure fear is nothing more than killing sharks to kill sharks. Due to their generally elusive nature and mysterious reputation, not much is known about shark migration. Like other migrations, there are three factors that heavily influence the mechanisms of shark migrations: reproduction, food sources, and temperatures or seasonal changes. Most sharks migrate to coastal bays and estuaries to reproduce and have offspring. Juveniles need the shelter of shallow waters from predators and adult sharks. Estuaries and bays provide safe, sheltered waters full of nutrients to allow juveniles to grow successfully into adults. Also, sharks often migrate if food sources migrate to maintain the ability to keep them as a food source. Finally, sharks are cold-blooded or exothermic meaning they must maintain their own body temperature. To do this they must move or migrate to warmer waters to keep their body temperature up.

Shark migrations continue to change overtime. Changing water temperatures also change the routes and destinations sharks choose. Rising temperatures have shifted where sharks migrate, thus sharks have started staying farther and farther north along the coast line as average water temperatures rise. As previously stated, climate change has a strong effect on migration as migration is strongly correlated with temperature. In 2014, a record breaking 12,000 blacktip and Spinner sharks were photographed off the Atlantic coast. This spring the same sort of reports and photos have been published further feeding into the obnoxious fear the public has for sharks so close to recreational beaches. While predators, research shows that sharks don’t actively hunt people for a food source. Most bites and attacks are accidental and occur in turbid, low visibility waters when the shark can’t see or gets confused. Even with this sort of knowledge, the public is still terrified of sharks and the perpetual media of sharks in mass numbers so close to beaches is to blame. Illegal hunting of migrating sharks is still a global issue that not only affects current populations of sharks but the future populations of sharks as well. As previously stated, sharks often migrate to reproduce. When large numbers of sharks are massacred on their way to reproduce, when they die they leave behind no offspring and the future population never has a chance. This heartbreaking truth is an important reason to not only learn more about sharks but to share new knowledge and research with the public just as much, if not more, than we share mass media migration photos.

There is so much more to learn about sharks than we currently know. In 2013, Reefnation published an article  about ground breaking shark tagging research by the OCEARCH team. OCEARCH is a nonprofit global shark tracking research group that does unprecedented work with large apex predators such as the Great White Shark. The founding chairman and expedition leader, Chris Fischer, is a visionary that has established a shark tracking team grounded on the principle of education and research to not only learn more about these misunderstood fish but to involve the general public, enabling students and others alike to learn alongside PhDs the wonders of the Great white sharks world. OCEARCH is a leader in open source research, launching in 2013, a near-real time global shark tracking, for free, through their website. Through the collaborative effort of several institutions using catch and release tactics, this team has been able to collect invaluable data of Great white sharks from Southern California down the Baja Peninsula. This research is pivotal in halting the decline of this apex predator so we can understand more about their health, history, and migration.

RKatharine-smallevolutionary teams like OCEARCH are of the utmost importance to not only the Great White Shark but to all shark species alike. It is our responsibility to change the negative connotation that has so strongly been linked to sharks over the centuries. It is not going to be an easy task, but organizations like OCEARCH are on the right track. Do your part and check out today!




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