Sharks: More Than a “Scary” Animal
March 13, 2023

By Ariana Piscoya, 2023 Future Blue Youth Council member

Featured Image: “A Call for Change” by JieJie Yuan (New York, USA)


When we hear that word, most of us think about dangerous animals that kill people. Perhaps most of this fear comes from movies in which a large group of people is swimming in the sea on a sunny summer day when suddenly a shark appears, and… well, we know the rest of the story. However, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, on average there is only one annual death caused by shark-related fatalities. Sun/heat exposure (273 annual deaths) or fireworks (11 annual deaths) are more likely to kill you than a shark (maybe there should be movies about those two topics, too).

Sharks are more than scary cinematographic animals. They play a crucial role in our environment.

Since they are top predators and their diet is based on the most abundant populations of species below them in the food chain, they help regulate and maintain the balance of marine ecosystems. Without sharks, the species that they prey on would uncontrollably eat fish lower in the food chain, affecting the ecosystem’s richness and abundance. “For instance, without sharks, there would be more tuna and less of what the tuna eats, but then, tuna would die because they would have eaten all the small fish,” said April Boyle, a marine environmental researcher, in the podcast Shark Tales. Furthermore, by removing weak and sick specimens, sharks control the spread of diseases and create more robust populations.

But those are not the only contributions of sharks to our planet. Tiger sharks have been shown to make oceans more resistant to climate change. Their presence prevents turtles and dugongs from overgrazing seagrass beds, allowing for the seagrass ecosystem’s correct functioning. Why is this important? Sea grasses can store carbon 35 times faster than rainforests. In addition, seagrasses provide food and shelter for other organisms, stabilize the sea bottom by diminishing the force of the currents, and maintain water quality by trapping fine particles suspended in the water column and filtering nutrients that come from land-based industrial discharge and stormwater.

Sharks also play an important role as carbon sinks. These types of big fish are about 10-15 percent carbon. When a shark dies in the ocean, it sinks to the depths, sequestering all the carbon it contains at the bottom of the sea for thousands of years. “But when a shark is caught, the carbon it contains is partly emitted into the atmosphere as CO2 a few days or weeks after,” said Gaël Mariani, a Ph.D. student at the University of Montpellier in France.

I remember watching a movie about sharks for the first time as a little girl. Days later, I had nightmares where a terrifying shark opened its mouth, ready to eat someone. Over time, the monster has changed. Now, I see a human ready to use any opportunity to destroy a shark’s life.

Sharks have become a high-priced “product” for many human industries. According to a study published by Marine Policy in 2013, approximately 100 million sharks are killed by humans annually worldwide. However, the journal also recognizes that this is a conservative estimate, and there could be as many as 273 million slaughters yearly. Most shark species are slow to mature and may not reproduce until 8 to 20 years of age. Therefore, sharks are being removed from the ocean faster than they can reproduce, causing their population to decline. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species estimates that over one-third of sharks are threatened with extinction, making this group of animals the second-most threatened taxon in the marine environment globally.

One of the leading causes of shark killings is the preparation of shark fin soup. It is a traditional Asian dish that represents wealth and delicacy. Sharks are caught, their fins are cut off, and then they are thrown back into the ocean alive. Unable to swim and breathe properly, sharks tragically suffocate, lose too much blood, or fall prey to other animals.

Sharks’ liver oil is another “millionaire product.” A study by the Bloom Association showed that an estimated three million deep-sea sharks are caught each year for the oil market. Products containing shark liver oil are often listed as “squalane” to make it difficult for the consumer to know if an animal has been used as an ingredient. As a purified and hydrogenated lipid, squalane is mainly used in the cosmetic industry to make moisturizing and anti-aging creams, foundations, sunscreens, hair conditioners, lipsticks, and more. Similar to shark finning, fishermen remove the liver and discard the shark back in the sea. Since sharks use the oil in their livers to control their buoyancy, they have difficulty swimming and die.

Shark teeth and jaws are sold worldwide as trinkets or curios. While sharks can lose up to 100 teeth per day, which wash up on beaches where they are collected and sold, their jaws are a different story. The black market kills sharks for the purpose of selling their jaws, sometimes for over USD $10,000. Even though many shark species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, this does not directly affect shark mortality, which means we still need catch limits to ensure the protection of these animals.

Multiple parts of sharks are also used in pet food, garden fertilizers, leather fabrication, household products, and more.

Let’s not forget: sharks inhabited Earth long before dinosaurs and have survived five mass extinctions. Human beings can’t be responsible for their extinction. Each of us can help save sharks. Know what to look for when buying products and read the labels to ensure that it does not contain shark parts. Reduce your greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide, which causes global warming), save water and energy, and contribute to incredible organizations that protect sharks, such as the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. Finally, using Bow Seat as an inspiration, educate others to take action, too. If everyone does their part, we will again have a healthy and prosperous shark population.

I’m more afraid of an ocean WITHOUT sharks. Are you, too?

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Sharks: More Than a “Scary” Animal

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