Sharks are facing extinction. S&H’s resident surfer, Kalia Kelmenson, explains why that matters.
Imagine you are floating on the surface of the ocean, looking down into the fathomless depths of blue. The sunlight streams down as far as you can see, and there is a sense of bottomlessness that is disorienting. Then, from those depths emerges a massive creature, over 20 feet long and weighing around 5,000 pounds.
For the team from One Ocean Diving and Research, this scenario played out earlier this year off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. They were conducting research on tiger sharks feeding off the carcass of a dead sperm whale floating nearby. The emergence of the massive great white shark from the depths of the ocean was cause for exhilaration and joy. Named Deep Blue by researchers, the shark is estimated to be 50 years old.
“It was my first great white experience so I thought I would be nervous, but it was very much the opposite,” explains Kayleigh Grant, one of the researchers in the water that day. “She was so large and full and potentially pregnant that she posed no threat to us. She was very slow moving and cautious and calm. It was an amazing experience to swim with a predator that is capable, yet has zero desire to hurt you.”
“Sharks are intelligent, curious, graceful, and very misunderstood animals,” says Ocean Ramsey, a marine biologist, conservationist, and head field researcher for One Ocean Research and Diving. “However, sharks are apex predators, so they do deserve a lot of respect.”
In fact, the role of sharks as an apex predator is one of the main reasons we must protect them. “Sharks act as the white blood cells of the ocean,” explains Ramsey, “sort of like the doctors of the sea. In general they hunt the dead, dying, weak, and injured fish. This leaves only the strong to survive. Ultimately, if sharks are killed off, which is where they are headed at this rate, then the smaller marine life will overpopulate, including the marine life that feeds on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton consumes carbon dioxide and turns it into oxygen. Seventy percent of our earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean. If the levels of phytoplankton decrease, it will affect our earth’s oxygen levels, which will affect humans.”
According to Safeguard the Seas founder and author of Emperors of the Deep, William McKeever, “An estimated 32 percent of open ocean sharks—including the scalloped hammerhead and whale shark—are currently threatened with extinction.”
“Despite the fact that they play an essential role in maintaining the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem and are key indicators of the overall health of our oceans, sharks are not a priority for conservation,” explains McKeever.
McKeever continues, “In any healthy ecosystem, a balance of components is in place, evolved over eons. Once the sharks go, environmental repercussions will occur everywhere, from the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle to the coral reefs of the tropical Central Pacific. Taking away apex predators typically results in top-down impacts on the ecosystem. Studies have shown that coral reef ecosystems with high numbers of apex predators tend to have greater biodiversity and higher densities of individual species. Without sharks, the entire ecosystem of the reef collapses. Moreover, healthy shark populations may aid in the recovery of damaged coral reefs, whose futures are threatened throughout the globe.”
The threat to sharks is both direct and indirect. Sharks are caught for their fins, which are removed, and often the living and helpless sharks are then pushed back into the ocean. The demand for shark fins in many Asian nations is rising to meet the insatiable demand for soup made from the fins. Sharks are also killed to make nutritional supplements and cosmetics. In addition, sharks are a byproduct of tuna fishing, which typically uses destructive long-line fishing methods.
Sharks are also hunted for sport. Decades of annual shark fishing tournaments in Montauk, Long Island, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts are responsible for decimating mako shark populations in those areas.
In an effort to shift the public’s perception and highlight the important role sharks play in the marine ecosystem, Ramsey and Grant are documenting their incredible encounters with sharks across the globe.
“I believe pictures can cross geographical and language barriers to reach a greater number of people,” explains Ramsey. “I think it is one of the most powerful ways to inspire conservation. We hope to inspire others through photos of people interacting with marine life, especially sharks, in a positive way, to give sharks a deeper look, give them a chance to survive and coexist.”
Lesley Rochat, a South African marine and shark conservationist, implores, “These aren’t monster maneaters looking for people to eat, but rather incredibly beautiful animals that deserve our respect, our admiration, and most of all our protection. We are part of nature. Because everything is connected, we must save our sharks so that we might save ourselves.”
How You Can Make a Difference
Be a conscious consumer. Many sharks are harmed by unsustainable fishing methods. Ask where the fish is sourced at your fish counter and in restaurants. Buy fish caught in the United States and with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) tag on it. If you eat tuna, be sure it is pole-caught.
Become an advocate for anti-sharkfishing legislation. In many parts of the country, including Hawaii, conservationists are fighting for legislation that will protect sharks. Become involved in these efforts and spread the word. Two important pieces of legislation are currently pending in the United States Congress. William McKeever suggests, “Call your senator or representative in Congress and tell them to pass The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, which would require all countries importing products related to sharks, rays, and skates into the United States to obtain certification by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, which would make it illegal to buy or sell shark fins or any product containing shark fins in the United States. Every year, fins from 73 million sharks enter the global shark-fin trade, and the United States still participates in the shark-fin trade.”
Follow marine conservationists online and share their posts on social media to spread the word about the importance of sharks in our marine ecosystem. The images and information shared by conservationists can have a powerful impact on how people think about sharks. One Ocean Diving and Research, for example, is active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
So you want to swim with the sharks?
As Ocean Ramsey explains, “The amazing thing about sharks is that they display behaviors that you can read to let you know how they are feeling in a situation. If sharks want you out of their territory, they let you know with signs and behaviors before it escalates to a bite. Sharks go to a bite for the last resort. They are smart and don’t want to get injured themselves, so they try to warn their peers by saying ‘I don’t want you here, get out of my space’ with their body language first. If you see a shark drop its pectoral fins, pop its gills, or open its mouth, it is a good idea to remove yourself from their area.”