Despite their vital biodiversity and economic value, misconceptions about sharks hinder efforts directed at protecting these marine predators.
Inspired by a recent study which unveiled extensive bias and inaccuracies in the global media coverage of sharks, here are five myths which I believe must be debunked to improve shark conservation efforts.
- Sharks pose more of a threat to humans than vice versa
Cult movies such as Jaws created a common misperception of sharks as human-eating monsters.
In reality, 2020 saw 13 deaths caused by shark attacks, slightly higher than the annual global average of four. In contrast, approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year. Although the limited reporting of catch numbers makes it challenging to calculate the exact global mortality rate for sharks per annum, a recent study estimated it to be within 6.4 and 7.9% of all shark species.
We should not be scared of sharks, we should be scared for them.
What you can do: raise awareness of the importance of sharks to the overall marine ecosystem.
As apex predators, sharks are responsible for maintaining a balanced food web and keeping prey numbers in check — not too few to hunt and not too many to overwhelm the ecosystem. Sharks also prevent the spread of disease by hunting the weak and sick.
In addition, certain shark species patrol large areas of seagrass which helps prevent herbivores such as dugongs or turtles from overgrazing on this critical marine ecosystem. Seagrass meadows are home to a multitude of endangered marine species, improve water quality, and are also crucial carbon sinks.
- Sharks are hunted only for their fins, and only in Asia
Although shark finning tends to dominate news headlines and research or advocacy efforts, sharks are also hunted for their meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage.
As one of the most expensive seafood commodities, shark fins are seen as a symbol of power and wealth in many Asian cultures and are regularly served for special occasions such as weddings.
While demand has fallen by 80 percent in mainland China, one of the key markets for shark fins, following an ambitious campaign featuring celebrities such as Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, shark fin soup continues to feature on the menu of restaurants across Asia, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Less attention is paid to shark meat consumption, although figures by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that the amount and value of shark meat imports have risen by 40 percent and 60 percent respectively between 2000 and 2011.
Based on FAO data, while East Asian countries are the key consumers and exporters of shark fins, the top ten exporters of shark meat include the U.S., New Zealand, Spain, the U.K., Argentina, Panama and Costa Rica. Shark trade is a truly global industry, and the responsibility does not lie with Asia only.
What you can do: refrain from buying shark products and reduce your seafood consumption.
Eating shark meat is not just environmentally irresponsible but also unhealthy. As predators at the top of the food chain, sharks accumulate a high concentration of toxic substances such as mercury or arsenic, long-term exposure to which can cause humans to develop cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular diseases or neurological issues.
Also beware of the mislabelling of shark products which might trick consumers into inadvertently eating products harvested from species facing extinction. ‘Laundering’ illegally caught fish by mislabelling it or mixing legal and illegal fish is a common practice because of the continued lack of transparency in seafood supply chains.
- Sharks are only threatened by overfishing
Overfishing is undoubtedly a key driver behind the rapid dwindling of shark populations, but the targeted hunting of sharks is also compounded by bycatches, unwanted catches that are left dead or dying. Fishers might be looking for tuna and end up capturing and killing sharks.
While research on the impact of climate change on sharks is limited, global warming, ocean acidification and the destruction of marine ecosystems present an additional risk to sharks. The clearing of mangroves impacts species that use them as a nursery for their young ones, while the loss of coral reefs reduces the amount of prey available to sharks.
A recent Nature study revealed that baby epaulette, or walking sharks, are starting to emerge earlier from their egg cases due to rising ocean temperatures, which has negatively impacted their health and fitness. Weaker sharks are less effective hunters which could disrupt the overall food chain.
Images of animals injured or poisoned by plastic are all too familiar, and sharks are no exception to the threat of ocean pollution. A 2020 study in Scientific Reports examined the stomachs and digestive tracks of sharks in the North-East Atlantic, and revealed that 67 percent of them contained microplastics — plastic particles or fibres smaller than 5 millimetres.
What you can do: Understanding the complex web of threats faced by sharks can help create more comprehensive policy solutions that address unsustainable fishing practices, the illegal trade in shark products or rapid habitat loss.
In addition, promoting more sustainable practices at home, at work or in your community will not only help combat plastic pollution or climate change but will also contribute to improved shark conservation.
- A ban on shark finning or the sale of shark fins is the only solution
Although most NGOs campaign for a complete ban on shark fishing or the sale of shark fins and shark products in general, such policy actions don’t resolve the issue of incidental catches.
An outright ban could also move the trade in sharks to the black market, similarly to tigers and rhinos, which continue to be illegally poached despite a ban on their trade.
Some scientists argue that rather than imposing an all-encompassing ban, efforts should be focused on creating more sustainable fisheries which would help combat overfishing and reduce the volume of bycatches. One of these studies identified what shark species are biologically sustainable to fish so long as the fishery is responsibly managed.
The Atlantic spiny dogfish, a small shark species common in U.S. waters and used in British fish and chips, is described as an example of science-based, sustainable shark management, and is certified as sustainable seafood by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
That said, sustainable fishing and sustainable seafood certifications have recently been slammed by the Netflix documentary "Seaspiracy," and sustainable shark fishing enjoys even less public support or awareness, especially when images of finless sharks go viral in traditional or social media.
What you can do: There is no single cure-all solution to shark conservation, and focusing on banning shark finning or the sale of shark fins only risks diverting attention away from other crucial challenges such as unsustainable fishing.
Advocacy efforts should focus on:
- -Setting catch limits to combat overfishing, calculated on basis of existing fish population numbers and reproduction rate;
- -Restricting commercial fishing methods that would lead to habitat destruction or excessive bycatches;
- -Increasing traceability in supply chains to tackle illegal fishing, mislabelling and other forms of seafood fraud;
- -Creating no-take marine protected areas — where fishing is banned completely — or shark sanctuaries — where shark hunting is banned — in the habitats of endangered species;
- -Placing endangered shark species on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans the export of products that would impact the survival of the species in the wild.
- Shark tourism always benefits conservation efforts
Shark tourism is beneficial only if done in a safe and responsible manner, if at least part of the revenue is channelled back to support conservation endeavors and if it provides a viable alternative source of livelihood to fishers used to hunting rather than protecting sharks.
Feeding or baiting sharks for the purposes of shark watching or cage diving have, for example, divided scientists. Some believe that it has no detrimental impact, while others argue that it could potentially alter the marine predator’s eating habits, behavior or migratory patterns.
What you can do: To create a truly sustainable shark tourism venture, operators must follow the guide to responsible shark and ray tourism developed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Manta Trust and Project AWARE.
Its recommendations include engaging and employing local communities; minimizing operational carbon emissions; training on and enforcement of guidelines related to diver safety and responsible animal interactions; and contribution to research and conservation initiatives. Importantly, it cautions against using food, lures or visual attractants to bring sharks to dive or swim sites.
For a more sustainable shark diving adventure, take a look at this list of eco-resorts or liveaboards which follow Project AWARE’s standards on shark protection.
Trang Chu Minh previously wrote about the world's rarest great ape for Changing America.