A Blue View: The Unfair Attack on Sharks

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

July 10, 2013: Sharks Unfairly Attacked

A Blue View podcast

Click here to listen to John discuss the bad
reputation sharks have gotten over the years. 

Sharks have long captured the imagination of the public. These days, even shark sightings make national news. Just this past June, great white shark sightings in Massachusetts and New Jersey cleared beaches and were widely reported across the country.

Often thought of as mindless, aggressive killers, sharks—and their toothy jaws—are featured prominently in movies and TV shows, always adding drama with a hint of fin visible above the water’s surface. Despite the fascination that we all feel for sharks, these important apex predators remain seriously misunderstood.

Most people think of great whites when they think of sharks, but there are actually more than 375 shark species, ranging in size from the 8-inch dwarf lantern shark to the 65-foot whale shark.

Here are just a few shark species that can be found at the Aquarium:

The vast majority of sharks are carnivores, but exactly what they eat depends on what they can catch. Larger shark species may prefer seals or large fish. Other species may opt for mollusks, clams, squid, and other small marine animals. One thing is certain—humans are not the preferred menu choice—far from it.

Of the hundreds of shark species, only 12 are considered even potentially dangerous to people, with great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks responsible for most attacks on humans. In 2012, approximately 80 shark attacks occurred worldwide, with seven fatalities. When one considers how fearful the general public is of sharks, it’s remarkable to learn that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by people each year. The fact is, sharks have far more to fear from humans.

While sharks may be at the top of the food chain, they are susceptible to threats such as shark finning, overfishing and bycatch. As top predators, most shark species produce relatively few offspring and take years to reach reproductive maturity. The whale shark, for example, doesn’t reproduce until the age 30. When killed in great numbers, sharks don’t have the opportunity to reproduce, and the long-term viability of the population is threatened.

So why should we worry about sharks? Let’s start with the fact that they’re absolutely critical to healthy ocean ecosystems. Scientists refer to sharks as a keystone species, meaning that the whole complex food web relies on them. From their perch at its top, sharks keep populations of other fish in check, naturally select out old and sick fish, and control populations so that other prey fish can’t cause an imbalance in the ecosystem. By doing the essential job of population control, sharks actually ensure adequate biodiversity in marine habitats.

Besides regulating the food web, sharks are believed to keep coral reefs, sea grass beds, and other vital habitats healthy. Essentially, sharks regulate the behavior of other species by intimidating them, preventing any one species from over-consuming critical habitat.

Because of the severe population decline of many shark species, several states, Maryland included, have taken steps to protect sharks by prohibiting the sale, trade, and transfer of shark fins, and many conservation organizations are advocating for even greater protection of these ocean-dwellers.

This summer, if you’re fortunate enough to spent time at the ocean, don’t let fear of sharks prevent you from enjoying the water. Be sensible, but not afraid. As you’ve no doubt heard, you face much greater risk driving to the shore than you do from the sharks that live there!

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