Humans need Sharks

Layers of razor sharp teeth, carnivorous nature, and known as the oceans top predator – it’s not hard to understand why sharks are so misunderstood and feared.

And it doesn’t help with Hollywood frequently portraying them as dangerous, mindless beasts that attack humans.

But what if you were told that although unfortunate shark encounters do occur, they are extremely rare – statistically speaking, you have a higher chance of losing your life while driving your car than being attacked by a shark.

Moreover, sharks have more reason to be afraid of humans, not the other way around – with fewer than 10 human fatalities a year due to unprovoked shark attacks around the world, it does not compare to humans catching over 100 million sharks every year, which is a conservative estimate from scientists.

But if this is the case, why are humans so afraid of these majestic animals?

According to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme’s (SPREP) Shark’s and Rays Conservation Officer, Juney Ward, the media can sometimes paint a very negative picture of these creatures.

“There have been many movies over the years that features sharks as being man-eaters, a classic example of this would be the popular movie Jaws,” she said.

“This is why we are doing a lot of awareness on the importance of sharks – so that we can highlight why we need them in our marine environment and remove the perception that sharks are just man-eaters.”

Ms. Ward also added that social media and news outlets also contribute to this negative image of sharks when they blow-up stories on shark attacks but avoid sharing/reporting on how sharks are threatened with extinction due to human activities.

“Its estimated that up to 273 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, mainly to meet the high demand for shark fins and other shark products,” she explained.

“Sharks are extremely vulnerable to overfishing because, due to their biological characteristics, they have difficulty recovering from human activity pressures. Sharks are not like other fish, they are slow to grow, late to mature, live longer and reproduce fewer pups (offspring’s). According the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), an estimate of 54% of sharks, rays and their relatives are threatened with extinction due to this.”

To add some context, shark fins are used as ingredients in various Asian cuisines, mainly soups, which make it high in demand – but the process of obtaining these fins are often done inhumanely.

Sharks are caught by the hundreds, and while they are still alive, their fins are sliced off and their body thrown back into the ocean to die a slow, painful, and horrible death – all for a bowl of soup.

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Aside from the main threat being overfishing, Ms. Ward also explained that other threats to sharks include being accidentally caught as by catch in fishing gears targeting commercial fish, pollution, marine debris, habitat loss/degradation, coastal developments and climate change.

Ms. Ward also explained that sharks are extremely important for marine ecosystems and, in many cases, tourism development.

“Sharks are apex predators and they are important because they help maintain the health of the marine life in the ocean,” she said.

“Coral reef in particular benefit from a healthy shark population in order to maintain the balance in the marine food chain. Sharks are also important in boosting tourism revenue and by promoting best practice diving and/or snorkeling activities. For example, in Palau, an individual reef shark is estimated to be valued at US1.9million over its lifetime to the tourism industry, and in Fiji, the shark diving industry contributed US42.2million to the Fijian economy in past years.”

Furthermore, sharks have a cultural importance in many Pacific Islands as they are featured in many myths, legends and traditions.

On the bright-side, Ms. Ward reassures that despite the fact that many species of sharks are threatened with extinction, the Pacific Islands have been champions and shown global leaderships in protecting sharks during international forums. For example, the listing of mobula rays, thresher and silky sharks on Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to ensure the sustainable trade of these species which was led by the Government of Fiji and supported by Samoa, Palau and other CITES Parties.

Many of our Pacific countries have established shark sanctuaries within their national waters to protect sharks, and are voicing the need to increase and strengthen collaboration and cooperation to ensure that the populations of threatened shark species recover.

To add on – in March this year, Samoa announced that the nation’s 128,000 sq km Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) will be declared a shark sanctuary – this makes Samoa the eighth pacific island that has designated its waters to the protection of shark and rays.

 Samoa also completed a shark survey of Aleipata and Falealili, which was conducted by teams from SPREP, Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE), using baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS).

The survey was aimed at assessing the diversity and abundance of sharks, as well as provides more data on these different shark species which is important in patching gaps in data availability within that field. Results indicated a healthy abundance of different shark species. 

CI Pacific Islands Program Marine director, Schannel van Dijken, adds - “Sharks have so much to offer Samoa, and research like the BRUV work is super important to help us understand our current populations and their future management for the benefit of Samoan people. It’s for these reasons CI Samoa, together with Samoa Voyaging Society and National Geographic support, will work with MNRE in filling more shark data gaps around the rest of Samoa that we’ve missed in earlier BRUV surveys, and using our very own traditional voyaging canoe, the Gaualofa, as the research platform. We will be using this approach (reminder of our traditional past merged with modern day science) to also share results and highlight sharks importance to our communities, and the economic and ecosystem benefits that they can provide.”

“As Fiji and Palau have benefited, we know sharks are worth far more to our economies alive than dead, and as numbers dwindle, more and more people from around the world want to see these sleek creatures in the wild and Samoa is in a good place to capitalize on this.”

So rather than fear sharks, why not think about how our tourism and economy may benefit from sharks? Why not think about how our marine ecosystem flourishes with the presence of these creatures?

At the end of the day, sharks within a marine ecosystem is a sign of a healthy ecosystem – and a healthy marine ecosystem means; more fish swimming around, larger fish to catch, and happier humans.

 

(This is CI Samoa’s first article for a new series called “Species of Interest” where we have specialists highlight a variety of species found in Samoa – whether endangered, extinct, threatened, endemic, invasive etc.)

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