Sharks! The first thought that comes to most people's mind are they are mindless killers, swimming around and eating anything they can catch. Movies such as Jaws have portrayed the shark to be an animal that should be feared, avoided and killed if possible. But in reality they are one of the most important creatures in the sea and actually benefit our very existence. Sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain in the ocean; this means that they keep in check populations of other fish so that the oceans and reefs stay healthy. For scuba divers they are a creature of beauty and we will travel far and wide to get a chance encounter underwater with these amazing animals. And it is our duty to help them in their fight for survival.
Dispelling The Myth
Sharks kill around on average 5 people worldwide every year, usually mistaking the person for a seal or other form of prey, after biting they will let go and swim away – we don't taste very nice, but unfortunately due to their size the bite can be fatal. In the Gulf of Thailand, in which our little island of Koh Tao sits, there have only been 4 shark attacks recorded in the last 100 years, which all have been on fisherman.
To put things into perspective:
Coconuts kill 150 people a year
Cows kill 20 people a year in the United States alone
Hippos kill 2,900 people
Even Champagne corks kill more people a year apparently, being responsible for 29 deaths on average. So you should be more worried if someone has a bottle of bubbly in their hand!
Sharks have roamed seas and oceans of Planet Earth for more than 400 million years, yet humans could make them extinct within the next few decades. At the moment sharks are being killed faster than they can repopulate in many area in the world. Sharks and rays are slow to develop and mature meaning they give birth to few young.
Sharks are being hunted for their fins so they can be used to make shark fin soup, a tasteless soup with very little nutritional value. They are also often caught accidentally by fisherman as part of by catch and other forms of unsustainable fishing practices.
The huge demand for shark fin soup over recent years has made sharks an easy way target for fisherman who can make a better living from this practice. Sharks are hunted for their dorsal and pectoral fins but are not usually used as a food source outright.
This means they are often caught, then finned whilst still alive then thrown back into the sea. The shark will then slowly sink to the bottom of the sea where it can take up to 4 hours to slowly drown or bleed to death. Even the majestic Whaleshark is not exempt from this type of cruel treatment.
A Life Without Sharks
If this trend is not changed or dramatically altered a world without sharks could be a reality in the not too distant future. This would have major ramifications that would reach far and wide. Studies show that the elimination of sharks in a particular region has disasters effects for local fisherman and reef eco systems as the delicate equilibrium is disturbed.
Sharks eat very efficiently and generally prey on the sick, weak or old keeping fish populations healthy and not overpopulated. The over population of one particular species will knock the whole eco system out of sync meaning that other species could be wiped out and important jobs on the reef not getting tended to.
The Scuba Effect
For many areas and countries affect on tourism of having a healthy shark population brings in much needed cash. The value of a live shark far out ways the value of a dead sharks fins (usually around $650 per kilo) meaning for a local tourist based economy it makes more sense focusing on trying to conserve sharks.
Currently shark tourism creates around $315 million a year worldwide. This number is only going to increase as scuba diving becomes more and more popular, and for many, much more accessible. As Scuba divers we wish to see the wonders that lie beneath the waves and will travel far and wide to experience time with these amazing creatures.
As Scuba Divers we are naturally one of the shark's closest allies. PADI and Project Aware have recognised this and made Shark conservation one of their top priorities with its "sharks in peril" initiative. With nearly 1 out of 4 species of sharks and rays listed on the endangered species list it is time to take a stand and do your bit for shark conservation.