Ecological Genocide: Everything You Fear About Sharks Is Wrong

Anybody who knows me well, understands how much I adore sharks. Apex predators of the deep and perfectly designed killing machines, yet incredibly majestic and breath-taking to watch. It has always been a dream of mine to cage dive with Great White Sharks, and one day I hope to study them for myself. As an elusive superorder, there is still so much to know about the modern sharks which grace our planet.

After a quick Google News search, I am greeted by a wealth of stories about the supposedly terrifying nature of these massive fish. “Great White Shark Attacks Boat of UNCW Students”, or what about the “Terrifying moment great white shark LEAPS from the water”. An article just a few days ago in the Daily Star stated that ‘BRITs have been warned that man-eating great white sharks find our seas perfect for hunting in’. And I have a problem with this statement. Well, problems. Firstly, according to The Shark Trust, ‘there have been no confirmed sightings, or substantial evidence’, of white sharks being present in British waters, despite good conditions. Secondly, I am fed up of the language utilised in the media regarding sharks, just to shock and terrify the public into buying more papers.

Shall we get the facts straight? Sharks are not ‘man-hunters’. In fact, more people get killed by cows in the U.S. every year than sharks, and you don’t see journalists labelling those as bloodthirsty killers. Worldwide, roughly six people are killed in shark attacks each year. If we want to get real about it, people are a much larger threat to sharks than they ever will be to us as a species. The journal Marine Policy recently reported that an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, largely for the shark fin trade, but in reality, that number could be anything between 63 million and 273 million individuals.

The branding of sharks as a menacing species to be feared, with film franchises like Jaws, hasn’t been ideal for creating an illustrious image for them. In fact, I have spoken to many people who are not bothered about the campaign to save sharks, as they under the illusion that we are better off without them anyway. For me, it is truly heartbreaking to witness the footage of fishermen cutting the fins off a variety of species of shark, only to throw these defenceless animals back into the water – alive. As a quick lesson in biology, being fish, sharks are required to swim in order to push water over their gills to oxygenate their blood to ensure their survival. Take away their fins and you are essentially subjecting them to death by means of suffocation. What make’s matters worse for me is after watching a documentary on the shark fin trade in China with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, we were informed that not only is this a barbaric practice, but the soup that is produced has no flavour. Shark fin soup is symbolic of wealth and that’s about it. Potentially, in my view, we are on the brink of wiping out a whole superorder in the name of arrogance.

The truth is, without sharks, there would be catastrophic impacts on marine ecosystems. Collapsing of trophic cascades across marine food webs due to shark extinction could result in exponential growth of algae and declines in populations of smaller organisms, such as molluscs and cephalopods. A 2005 study noted that the ecology of coral reefs die within a year if the shark population ceases to exist. Once these populations have declined, a domino effect will occur as there are insufficient food resources for other organisms higher up the food chain, which could ultimately result in fishery collapses.

But without being selfish and thinking about what the impact of this ecological genocide could potentially be for us as humans. Why can’t we stop this senseless killing purely because not only is it wrong, but it’s also unsustainable? At the current rate of harvesting, it is not plausible for shark populations to recover to a stable rate of population growth. Some species of shark have seen their populations plummet by over 90% due to shark finning – an unprecedented rate. There have also been reports of whale sharks being slaughtered for their gill rakers, much like manta rays. I cannot express enough how urgently we must stop the slaughter of sharks globally. Economically, they are worth far more alive, particularly to the tourism trade. Great Whites are estimated to be worth up to 50% of local business sales, due to tourists visiting Gansbaai, South Africa to dive with them. Whatsmore, they’re pretty damn awe-inspiring to watch.

The journey to stop this mallicious slaughter of millions of sharks globally is by no means going to be easy. There are many hurdles ahead. We are in a better position now than we were many years ago in terms of public awareness, and that’s a great start. The more people that are aware of the importance of preventing the slaughter of these fantastic beasts, the more pressure there be on international organisations to enforce the necessary legislation to stop their murder. It will be by no means simple, but it’s undeniable that it’ll be worth it.

If you want to know more about the shark finning trade or are interested in finding out more about sharks, I urge you to watch the documentary film Sharkwater.

#MyWildDiary Something A Lil’ Bit Different…

As you may have noticed, my blog has not been updated for some time now – a couple of weeks I believe. I wish I had some great, extravagant excuse as to why this has happened, but alas I do not. No, it’s just been my fairly mundane life prohibiting me from finding time to write about the one thing I love. On the flip side though, one exciting thing that did happen was meeting the producer and director of the Mountains episode of Planet Earth II – Justin Anderson. Yeah, that was very cool.

In the relatively long time that I have not been present on the internet, much has gone on in the world of wildlife. This Friday just passed was the United Nation’s #WorldWildlifeDay. An incredibly important awareness campaign day for a plethora of threats that face our global wildlife populations. This year’s focus was on “listen to the young voices”, showing the value of the next generation’s effort to change the present threats facing the planet’s wild family. I am a firm believer that as a generation, the millennials are one of the most prominent cogs in the conservation machine, particularly in terms of changing attitudes.

On a sadder note, yesterday it was reported in The Guardian that poachers have killed one of Africa’s last remaining ‘big tusker’ elephants. Despite the global euphoria that radiated around the scientific community, and environmental enthusiasts alike, when China announced that it would ban its’ ivory trade by the end of 2017, stories like this are a brutal reminder that there is still a troublesome journey ahead if we are ever to prevent the extinction of elephants in the wild. What’s more alarming to me, is that if we cannot prevent the extinction of a keystone species, such as the African Elephant, then what hope remains for the rest of the world’s wildlife?

Considering their vast size and the wealth of knowledge that we do not know about them, it comes as no surprise that there has been a multitude of stories regarding the world’s marine life. One in particular that caught my eye was one entitled fish under threat from ocean oxygen depletion. How crazy is that? Just reading the title itself left me in a state of complete disbelief and horror. The article, again in The Guardian, states that a study by the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research has found that oceanic oxygen levels have depleted by 2% over the past 50 years due to climate change. Now, 2% might not sound like a lot, but continuing at this rate of depletion, the article informs us that oceanic oxygen levels will decrease by roughly 7% by 2100. That is staggering. Not only will this have catastrophic implications on a wide range of marine flora and fauna, as they are unable to adapt to the new, lowered concentrations of oxygen, but it will also have staggering implications for humans. Understandably, fish stocks will eventually collapse. This is a major issue as fish and shellfish are considered one of the most important sources of protein globally, especially in developing countries. Further to this, climate change is increasing sea level rise, lowering oceanic pH levels and heightening marine temperatures. All of these impacts of climate change are highly interlinked and have knock-on effects on seemingly unrelated elements of the globe’s ecosystems.

When I first decided 10 or so years ago that I wanted to become a marine biologist, I had no conception of the intricacy of the environment. Everything is so highly complex. As I continue with my undergraduate studies, gradually hoping to pursue an MSc and a PhD, I am consistently overwhelmed by the convoluted world around us. To me, this presents two very separate ideas. For one, this arduous, interconnected planet on which we live, is incredibly exciting.Discovering how these highly sophisticated mechanisms and relationships operate, from mutualistic relationships between sea anemones and clownfish to the feedback mechanisms of the albedo effect in polar environments, is an especially valuable and mentally challenging task – one which many thrive upon. As with most things in science, the challenges that are shown to us at present, principally climate change, are interwoven with multiple threats to the environment. For me, this symbolises how integral it is that we all co-operate, as a global community, if we are ever to tackle the problems associated with climate change, mass extinctions and pollution – just to name a few. Without educating the future generation of scientists in a whole wealth of environmental sciences, I partially believe that the fight may have already been lost.

All in all, it seems to me that “listen to the young voices” could not be a more appropriate theme for this year’s #WorldWildlifeDay, don’t you think?