I have always been fascinated with sharks. My interest stemmed from their mysterious and remarkable life histories, which have in many ways remained unchanged for millennia. It was when I had the amazing opportunity to dive with sharks, witnessing them in their natural environment, that I developed a true appreciation for them. Since then I have had a passion to aid and support their protection and conservation.
There are estimated to be around 500 species of shark globally, ranging from the slow moving Greenland shark, to the planktivorous whale shark, to the exceptionally fast short fin mako. Sharks are ecologically and economically important, playing an essential role within marine ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks form vital elements of marine food chains, as well as being significant indicators of ocean health. Research carried out on this topic, has found that the loss of sharks within an ecosystem can be hugely detrimental, leading to the decline of coral reefs, seagrass beds and commercial fisheries (Friedrich, Jefferson and Glegg, 2014).
Many species of shark are slow to mature, with low reproductive rates, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Just some of the current threats posed to sharks include overfishing, habitat degradation, climate change and pollution.
As of February 2018, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, listed 12 species of shark as critically endangered and 17 species of shark as endangered. These statistics do not even account for many further species, which are listed as vulnerable or under threat. This exposure to threat means that serious conservation policies to protect shark populations must continue to be investigated. In order to do this it is important to consider what influences the implementation of conservation policies.
Historically, conservation campaigns have focused on what are deemed as charismatic animals. These flagship species often have characteristics that we, as humans, can associate ourselves with or that we find appealing. This raises the matter of whether an animal must be ‘cute’ in order to deserve, or be given, protection (Curtin and Papworth, 2018).
Sharks are animals that often evoke strong reactions in people, some people view them as captivating creatures, whilst others view them as formidable man-eaters. Often the later view is due to the physical characteristics of sharks, which make them an easy target for negative portrayal. Frequently, their strength, speed and often large teeth, are not looked on favourably when compared to other less ‘intimidating’ animals. However, physical characteristics do not indicate the importance of a species or their role, needed for an ecosystem to function in equilibrium.
As with many aspects of society, these particular portrayals of sharks are frequently influenced by the media. An infamous example of this is the ‘Jaws effect’, so titled after its namesake movie ‘Jaws’. The public response to Jaws has been well cited as being a major influence on a societal perception of sharks being a fearsome threat to humans. How the media influences public perception is hugely important when considering the conservation of sharks. It is probable that many people would be less likely to donate to the protection of an animal that they have grown up fearing, as opposed to perhaps one that they find superficially non-threatening.
Despite official figures showing that sharks are hugely under threat from human activity, often the reports on them in the media are sensationalised and skewed – particularly in the case of shark attacks. Headlines often reflect the supposed threat sharks are to humans, whilst often under reporting the serious threat human activity is having on shark populations globally. This presents a problem when considering the implications it may have on the public’s opinion of sharks and therefore their ‘worth’, when related to conservation. If sharks continue to be portrayed in an unfavourable light it is unlikely they will gain the support needed to implement policies for their protection (Muter et al, 2013).
Shark conservation is complex, but it is clear that working to increase the popularity of sharks with positive depictions in the media can only be good. By changing the social psychology and any negative attitudes towards sharks, it may be possible to increase public engagement in shark conservation. To do this reporting needs to be based on clear, scientific foundations with accurate representations of sharks as a species.
Although, at times, it can be easy to become disheartened by the obstacles faced whilst trying to protect a species, there are many dedicated people globally who do appreciate sharks and their importance. There is a growing availability of educational resources looking to improve shark knowledge, as well as a number of fascinating and insightful documentaries, such as Rob Stewarts much loved ‘Sharkwater’, which has been hugely beneficial to shark conservation. With continued efforts to improve ocean literacy and promote accurate representations of sharks in the media, perhaps sharks will cease to be such a misunderstood megafauna and become recognised for the charismatic creatures that they are.
Some interesting shark links:
GUEST BLOGGER AND TFUI OFFICER EMMA WRAKE
Emma Wrake is a boat dwelling, diving, ocean fanatic. With a love for travel, and a soon to be Biology graduate, she is interested in all things conservation related - with a particular love for sharks. You can find out more on her website www.wildaboutwild.com or follow her on twitter @EWrake
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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