Why sharks are important to ocean ecosystems: an expert explains – The European Sting – Critical News & Insights on European Politics, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Business & Technology


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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Senior Editor, Educational Content


  • Shark attacks on humans are rare, according to a shark expert.
  • Overfishing is causing many shark populations to decline and some to the point of extinction.
  • Improving marine management is a key element in the protection of endangered species.

In 1975, the fictional seaside town of Amity and movie audiences around the world were terrorized by a tactically crafty great white shark. While films like JAWS often do well at the box office, their legacy is to portray the planet’s shark species as dangerous predators that prey on humans.

This image is very misleading, says Andy Cornish, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Sharks: Restoring Balance conservation program.

Sharks evolved over 400 million years ago and continue to thrive. These ancient creatures survived the dinosaurs and play a key role in maintaining marine ecosystems. Human activity poses a much greater danger to sharks than it does to us, and it pushes more species towards the endangered list – or extinction.

An identity error

“Whenever I am asked about the number of human deaths related to sharks, people are surprised how few there are compared to other predators. Lions and tigers each kill about 100 people a year, hippos kill 500, crocodiles 1,000, and snake-related deaths are estimated between 20,000 and 50,000 annually, ”Cornish explains.

“On average, sharks kill six people a year. Not 6000, not 600, not 60, but six. Yet shark sightings and attacks make headlines, while deadly snakebites rarely make headlines, ”he adds.

About 507 species of sharks are recorded, and only 11 of them are known to have already caused human death, less than 2% of the total.

“Sharks don’t deliberately attack people to eat them. Sometimes some species bite, either because they feel threatened or because they are hungry and do not know if humans are edible. So they bite to test, ”says Cornish.

Even when deaths do occur, it is usually a mistaken identity. Sharks very rarely eat their human prey, but they usually swim away.

in the photo, dead sharks, which are caught and sold for their meat
Sharks are caught and sold for their meat. Image: Reuters / Tarmizy Harv

Why should I care if sharks are endangered?

With over 500 species, sharks don’t just live in the ocean, they help shape it. https://www.youtube.com/embed/nic4JKD88Kg?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

“The top surface of the ocean receives the most sunlight, which allows phytoplankton – the engines of marine ecosystems – to thrive, but these shallow waters are poor in nutrients,” says Cornish. “When sharks, rays and marine mammals like whales dive to feed on animals in deeper waters, they return with essential nutrients, which they excrete and help make shallower waters more productive.”

The creatures that make these vertical migrations also help to mix the different ocean layers, bringing nutrient-rich water up from the depths and helping to oxygenate and expand the more productive top layer.

Research shows that tiger sharks also help mitigate climate change. Dugongs – a type of sea cow – and turtles graze seagrass beds, which are more efficient at sequestering carbon than tropical forests. With no tiger sharks feeding on these creatures, they overgrazing, but with a predatory shark around, dugongs and turtles don’t stay in one place for long, which prevents overgrazing and promotes carbon storage.

Overfishing, overfishing, overfishing

While sharks contribute significantly to the health of the oceans, human activity is decreasing their numbers.

“There are three main threats to shark populations around the world: overfishing, overfishing and overfishing. It is estimated that around 100 million sharks are caught each year, which is a staggering number, ”says Cornish.

Overfishing occurs at all levels, from small-scale inshore fishing to industrial tuna vessels far out at sea. And it’s a myth that most sharks are caught accidentally. Sharks are deliberately targeted, not only for their fins used in shark fin soup, but also for their meat, which has recently risen in value, and their liver oil.

Research published in Nature shows that the abundance of sharks and ocean rays has declined by 71% since 1970 due to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure.

this infographic explains that more than 37,400 species are threatened with extinction
Sharks and rays are under increasing pressure, pushing many species to the brink of the abyss. Image: IUCN

More than a third of all shark and ray species could be threatened with extinction, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

What can be done to help shark populations recover?

There are a number of measures that can help conserve shark species, many of which focus on more efficient marine management.

Cornish says there are three important ways to limit the damage caused by overfishing to sharks. “First, establish and control catch limits for species still caught in reasonable numbers,” he says. “Second, more endangered species need to be put on protected lists, but we also need to protect their critical habitats.

“And finally, we need to find ways to adapt commonly used fishing gear to still catch target species, but harm fewer sharks, rays and other unintentional marine life.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and represents 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We cannot have a healthy future without a healthy ocean, but it is more vulnerable than ever due to climate change and pollution.

Tackling the serious threats to our ocean means working with leaders from all sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, brings together the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a program with the Indonesian government to reduce plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, Friends are pushing for new solutions. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfX0%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1372898575710101506&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum. org% 2Fagenda% 2F2021% 2F07% 2Frequins-surpêche-ocean-ecosystems-endangered% 2F & sessionId = f6507fb508286e2bcfca07d3547bc4b76febd862 & theme = light & widgetsVersion = 82e1070% 3A1619632wi550

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum is leading a number of initiatives to support the transition to a low carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have reduced their companies’ emissions by 9%.

Does your organization want to work with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Measures to encourage the fishing industry to act could be part of the solution. The growth of shark and ray tourism – where visitors travel to see charismatic species like great whites, hammerhead sharks and manta rays in their natural habitat – has the potential to boost local economies and provide new employment opportunities for fishermen and others, for example.

A broad plan is needed to restore shark populations on the planet. Currently, there is no international consensus on the fate of sharks and little urgency on the need to prevent species from becoming extinct.

AI and drones protect sharks

California conservationists have introduced the latest digital technology in their efforts to save the great white shark from extinction. Drones patrol popular surfing areas, scanning the sea for signs of sharks that may pose a danger to humans. The AI ​​scans the images of the drone to give a positive identification. The system can alert surfers to the presence of sharks and protect sharks from the often fatal consequences of encountering humans.

The project is part of the World Economic Forum’s Uplink initiative which connects entrepreneurs with experts and investors seeking to develop solutions to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 14 aims to protect life underwater and maintain the health of ocean ecosystems.

What can I do to get involved?

Organizations that support and protect sharks, like the World Wide Fund for Nature, welcome the support of people like you for their work.

“Try to educate yourself on the issues, get involved and make your voice heard,” Cornish advises. “Governments usually don’t prioritize issues unless they feel a significant number of people care about them. So it’s important that people talk about sharks.

“The vast majority of shark products come from fisheries that are not sustainable and the products are not traceable. Say no to shark products. Don’t buy shark fins or meat, but also boycott health supplements containing squalene – a compound found in shark liver oil – or shark teeth sold as holiday souvenirs in some countries ” , he adds.

We can all play our part in protecting sharks so that they continue to thrive for another 400 million years.

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