By Bella Rudoy
Although people think of sharks as fierce, ferocious predators, people pose more of a threat to sharks than the other way around. Mankind has been rapidly killing sharks for their meat and collagenous limbs for centuries to produce makeup, cleansers, and moisturizers. For example, squalene oil is a known moisturizer and is derived from a shark’s liver. It is one of the many products that have contributed to the rapid increase in killing sharks that could soon lead to their extinction.
It is not just beauty products that pose a threat. Sharks, such as, are often caught accidentally by fisheries, causing exponential growth in this vital species’ extinction rate. Other threats to the shark species include shark finning, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation, and nets. Up to sharks and rays are caught each year around the world. Since many fisheries lack catch limits, sharks are caught much faster than they can reproduce, exacerbating the problem even more. Additionally, the increased need for pet food (which is processed with shark meat and cartilage) and fishmeal to feed farm animals has worried scientists about the possibility of sharks becoming extinct.
Sharks are classified as apex predators, animals that ensure the diversity of marine species and the protection of marine habitats, a process vital to our oceans’ health and balance. Apex predators occupy the highest trophic positions in food webs and serve important roles in ecological and evolutionary processes which shape and reshape the traits of prey and how they interact with each other in the ecosystem. Without apex predators, prey numbers would skyrocket, and slow, weak, and dying animals would rise in population resulting in the decline of a species’ population health. Moreover, apex predators keep numbers of smaller predators under control which allows the population of smaller prey to stay at a sustainable level. When apex predators begin to decline rapidly, population cycles for other animals in the ecosystem explode. Additionally, plant life is affected as forests become stunted and rivers flood.
These potentially devastating outcomes are widely ignored. Since many shark species take between thirteen and thirty years to reach sexual maturity, sharks are particularly vulnerable to population depletion as they are killed prior to reproducing. In fact, scientists have predicted that some shark species have declined by 99% in the past thirty years. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List, at least a quarter of ray and shark species have now been classified as threatened. The number of shark and ray species threatened will likely increase since only 50% of known species have been assessed.
As the shark crisis will likely become exacerbated in the future, what can we do to help sharks and our ecosystem as a whole? For starters, we can donate to organizations, such as the WWF, working hard to stop illegal fisheries from overfishing. We can also resolve not to buy makeup products or medicines with shark extracts. Finding a solution to this problem will take time and effort. That being said, spreading awareness today about the issues that will arise if sharks become extinct and the steps to combat this calamity is the only way sharks will continue to roam our oceans for centuries to come.