Learn about the white shark
One of the most feared and misunderstood animals on the planet, sharks are highly evolved and are vital to the health of the ocean. Having been around for around 450 million years, these apex predators are incredibly well adapted to their environment, making them extremely efficient hunters and survivors. With help from electro-receptive sensors located in their heads, sharks are able to detect electric fields in the water and thus the electrical output of muscle contractions or heartbeats from surrounding wildlife. This also extends however to electrical signals in the water from equipment operated by humans, such as cameras. Unfortunately, these majestic animals have been falsely labeled monsters by stories and the film industry, and this is often targeted at white sharks in particular, giving them an undeserved reputation that is incredibly counteractive to their protection.
On average, while there are fewer than ten shark-induced human deaths a year, 70 to 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year.
White shark populations have decreased significantly over the last 150 years, now being listed as vulnerable on the ICUN red list (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the dwindling shark populations have devastating effects on the ecosystem. Imagine sharks the be the custodians of the ocean, keeping it healthy, and the populations of species in lower trophic levels stable. Their preying on, and therefore removing of the ill, weak, and dying helps prevent disease from spreading and allows the fittest to survive. Sharks feed on all sorts of smaller prey items, and depending on the size of the shark this includes smaller fish and rays, crustaceans, turtles, and marine mammals such as seals.
Sharks are made even more vulnerable by their slow reproductive rate.
Long gestation periods, and the fact that they reach sexual maturity relatively late leaves populations readily affected by disturbances. It is heart breaking to see their numbers decline by degrading practices such as shark finning, sport fishing, or as a means to gain shark derived souvenirs. Shark finning has been practiced for centuries with shark fins and shark fin soup being regarded as a status symbol, and being used in traditional medicine on the Asian, and particularly Chinese market. Despite being held in high regard in Asian cuisine and medicine, tissues of large predators tend to accumulate environmental toxins via their prey. Toxins concentrate through the food chain both in water and on land and with their ever-increasing presence in the modern world, the consumption of such tissues will no doubt come hand in hand with toxins.
Shark finning is excruciatingly wasteful as fins are removed from the living animal and the remaining body discarded back into the water. For most sharks, breathing relies on keeping moving so this leaves sharks unable to swim and facing a slow and painful death.
In some countries shark finning is banned or partially banned, whereas in others, shark fishing is considered illegal altogether. White sharks are a migratory species however, and there is no global regulation on these bans, which makes it difficult to follow through on jurisdictions. This lack of uniformity allows a lot of room for illegal activity to take place. Overfishing, especially using controversial fishing methods such as long line fishing, bottom trawling, or the use of gillnets further contributes to shark population decline.
There is a high chance of accidental bycatch of untargeted wildlife including sharks, sea turtles and dolphins, and when conducted on the water’s surface, even seabirds like albatrosses. Wildlife can be fatally injured, and even in the chance of later release has a very low survival rate.
Returning to more traditional fishing methods such as hook and line techniques, spearfishing, or cast netting is a much more sustainable option. It is possible to avoid consuming fish caught using unsustainable methods as often it is required to mention origin on the packaging in supermarkets, or fishmongers and restaurants will know where their stock comes from. Reducing the demand for fish produced using these methods, and instead supporting sustainable fishing will play a part in reducing chances of bycatch, and hopefully increase the chances shark populations have to recover. In addition to this, watching out and avoiding shark meat disguised under false names will also contribute to the survival of shark populations in slowing trade of shark meat. Some of the false names given to shark meat include: “White fish”, “Flake”, “Grayfish”, “Rock Salmon”, “Moki”, “Steakfish” and “Cazon”. For a full list of alternative names please refer to “What you should know about sharks” by Ocean Ramsey. Simply being aware that these unsustainable fishing methods and falsifications occur, and stimulating conversation and thought around the subject is contribution to more sustainable customer demands. Given the current state of our seas and oceans, it is not surprising that we encounter more and more sharks on the brink of starvation.
Contrary to popular belief, sharks are not attracted to human blood as we do not form part of their natural prey,
but it follows that a desperate, famished animal is more likely to attack in order to survive. Given that sharks are energy efficient hunters, they would not expend energy on a potentially harmful confrontation if not absolutely necessary. This means that many shark attacks and incidents are likely to be caused by compromised and adverse interactions. These could be proximity to a prey animal, prey-like behavior leading to mistaken identity, or sometimes even provocation of the animal. If we ever wish to encounter a shark in the wild, or there is a likely chance we will do so unintentionally, it may be beneficial to inform ourselves on their behavior beforehand in order to mitigate shark related incidents. This may also help to turn around the common perception of sharks and especially white sharks to a more interested and positive one. They are such powerful and impressive animals, and it is a pity to lose so many individuals to human greed. Educating ourselves, acting more consciously, and spreading awareness may help to change the outcome for these amazing animals for the better.
Species Fun Fact
When in the womb, baby white sharks swallow their own teeth which is believed to be a way of gaining minerals such as calcium.
For reference, or to find out more please explore the following:
“What you should know about sharks”, by Ocean Ramsey
Ferretti, F., Worm, B., Britten, G.L., Heithaus, M.R. and Lotze, H.K., 2010. Patterns and ecosystem consequences of shark declines in the ocean. Ecology letters, 13(8), pp.1055-1071.
All information was collected and up to date in 2020.