Finding sharks in the ocean around most tropical countries has become a needle in a haystack search, Divers flock to a few protected areas in the hope of a glimpse of the ocean predator. A few other resorts, have worked hard to protect a few individual sharks. Realistically, the best place for anyone to see sharks is in the giant tank at an Oceanarium. I run the Green Connection in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and I can guarantee you will be amazed and awed. Shark displays are a fantastic way to get up close and personal but surely they should not be the only option. Is this what we want for our children? Sharks wiped out from the sea – extinct in nature and only swimming in public aquaria! Sharks have been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years — 100 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared on land. .Today, shark populations in most of the tropical seas have been wiped out by commercial fishing, putting many species in danger of extinction.
Sharks have unfortunately fallen vic tim to the man-hungry, stereotype that movies like Jaws has created. The villain in Jaws was a great white shark, they eat seals and we eat cows, sheep, goats and chickens. Are we all that different? We are both apex predators. The scary thing for most people is that sharks can kill people. While this fact is undeniably true, the fear is out of all proportion to the danger. You can also be killed by cars, brooms or chairs to name a few dangers we are all at risk from. Not many people are afraid of the stairs in their house or the chickens in the yard. More people were killed by chickens last year than by all the sharks in the world.
The fear of great white sharks has created a massive tourist industry earning millions each year. In South Africa, 300 people each day dive with sharks. They pay US$30,000 per day for the dives and over US$45,000 for hotels, food and transport. The 20 or so movie star sharks only get paid in fish and yet they earn about US$75,000 per day for the country. Only football players and movie stars earn that much. We don’t kill football players for their hands and feet! Why kill sharks for their fins?
Enlightened countries are cashing in on shark fever, a ban on shark catching has become common in countries with a tropical tourist industry. Many rivals for global tourists have protected their sharks: from the Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to Guam, Palau and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, it is being seen as big business to have healthy shark populations.
The Bahamas in the Caribbean sea, is the shark tourist capital of the world, a few people in the 1980′s looked at the assets of the country and lobbied to protect what they could. The Bahamas is now one of these rare exceptions where healthy shark populations still exist. Because of the ban on longline fishing gear in the 1990s, Bahamian shark populations remain relatively healthy with a great diversity of species. Many tourists come to The Bahamas to participate in diving or recreational fishing. Television and film crews also frequent The Bahamas to make use of the clear water and available shark species, generating further public and media attention for the islands. As a result, the high diversity and abundance of sharks provide a valuable asset to the Bahamian economy. A single reef shark is estimated to be worth US$250,000 over its lifetime for tourism if kept alive on the reef. If it is fished, the same shark generates a one-time value of US$50-60. Sharks are clearly worth more alive than dead, demonstrating the need to protect this valuable resource.
As top predators, sharks help to manage healthy ocean ecosystems. And as the number of large sharks declines, the oceans will suffer unpredictable and devastating consequences. Sharks help maintain the health of ocean ecosystems, including seagrass beds and coral reefs. Healthy oceans undoubtedly depend on sharks.
In Sabah, Sharks are the “apex” or top predators in their ecosystems because they have few natural predators (except for humans). As apex predators, sharks feed on the animals below them in the food web, helping to regulate and maintain the balance of marine ecosystems. Apex predators directly limit the populations of their prey, which in turn affects the prey species of those animals, and so on.
By preventing one species from monopolizing a limited resource, sharks increase the species diversity of the ecosystem. To put it simply, more predators lead to greater diversity. Comparisons of areas with and without Shark populations show that these predators provide greater biodiversity and higher densities of individuals, while areas with no sharks have fewer species and individuals.
Without healthy numbers of sharks there is often unchecked predation by other lower predatory species, overeating of vegetation by herbivorous prey species and increased competition that ultimately affects the species richness and abundance within the system. In addition to regulating species abundance, distribution and diversity, top predators provide essential food sources for scavengers and remove the sick and weak individuals from prey populations. There are no doctors in the ocean to treat sick fish, but disease does not spread because sharks simply remove the sick before the disease can spread.
Apex predators, including many shark species, are a necessary component to maintaining a complex ecosystem full of diversity and life.
Sharks have survived multiple mass extinctions, but they are not equipped to withstand the threats now posed by humans. Their life history characteristics, such as slow growth, late maturation and production of few offspring, make them vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from decline. As a result, shark populations are in trouble globally. The demand for shark fins, and other products has driven numerous Sabah shark populations to the brink of extinction. The loss of sharks could cause irreversible damage to the ocean—and to economic activities, such as dive tourism, that benefit from healthy marine habitats.
People generally are afraid of sharks with a fear level not in proportion to the risk. However, what the world should really fear is a world without sharks. Each year, humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide. This includes the tens of millions of sharks that are caught annually for their fins, which are one of the world’s most expensive seafood products. We know sharks are worth more alive than dead and they are essential to maintain marine ecosystems. Is it not time that we put aside the images of Jaws we saw as children and created a situation where our grandchildren can see healthy coral reefs with abundant sharks.
Time is of the essence – giving sharks permanent protection in any country helps grow the economy, creates jobs and helps secure the continued survival of these incredible animals. Sharks are in the news, several countries are trying to protect sharks. The overwhelming problem for most shark protection campaigns is the shortage of data – How many Sharks are there?. Not just in overfished places but in places with real sucess stories. Please send a request to every diver you know, If your dive sites have no sharks, you can help. If you have many sharks you can help even more. We need to ducument sucess stories and failures so that policy makers worldwide will make the right choices.
Dig out your old logbooks - we are asking every diver send us their historical data and to record all the sharks they see and the time spent underwater.
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