Sharks Are Friends, Not Food!
(The shark in the cover image is a whale shark, the largest and surprisingly one of the most passive sharks. They filter-feed as many whales do, hence the name whale shark. The shark pictured is seen feeding in close range to plastic, and it is estimated that whale sharks ingest hundreds of microplastics each day. This is just a single example of the effects of plastic pollution and the climate crisis in general on sharks.)
So it’s no surprise to anyone at this point that our planet is at a rapid functional decline because of our climate crisis, with animals and our environmental wonders suffering the most right now. My favorite animal, the shark, has been on a constant population decline in recent decades and like many endangered animals, it’s only getting worse. Using them as an example, this is what’s happening to our ocean life and what we can do about it.
I believe that everyone should know at least a little bit about one of the most important parts of our ocean’s ecosystem that are currently getting hunted to extinction. I’ve personally always had a specific passion for sharks, so I have a lot of built-up as well as newly founded information as I research more and more about these fascinating creatures.
For background, sharks are an animal classification that covers a wide variety in terms of function. Most sharks, if you were to see one, look generally similar. The most famous species of sharks being the Great White, Tiger Shark, and Bull shark. The Great White shark belongs to the Mackerel order, and the Tiger and Bull Shark belong to the Ground Shark order. Within these orders are families, genera, and then species. Order classification relies mostly on a shark’s structural appearance, particularly their snout, gills, and fins. This act of classification of living things is called Taxonomy. It is through this classification that we can categorically observe and different types of sharks and the impact different forms of pollution have on them.
Sharks have evolved to be what most people would call “perfect predators”. While sharks are a large classification of animals, their unifying traits all make them fascinating hunters. Sharks are Chondrichthyes, fish with a skeletal system made of cartilage and not bones. Other animals in this class include most rays. This means that sharks can grow to enormous sizes. Instead of having solid calcium-based bones like we do that are limited in growth, bones made of cartilage allow a shark to keep growing indefinitely.
They’re also polyphyodonts, meaning they regrow multiple rows of teeth if some fall out, and have sharp serrated teeth to catch and wound prey. Even their skin is built for hunting, as it’s made of lots of tiny scales that make the entire surface area rough enough to harm. They are usually darker colored from above and lighter colored from underneath, making them hard to see from above or below as they’re in the water.
It is estimated although exact dates are disputed, like everything, in the scientific community, sharks appeared around 450 million years ago. To put that in perspective, Dinosaurs and many recognizable mammals appeared 230 years ago, with human-like creatures around 4-5 million years ago. So yeah, sharks have been here a while. They’ve survived all five mass extinctions.
Yet despite all these evolutionary advances and wonders, sharks are fighting a losing battle in this most recent mass extinction. Our current climate crisis is leading to the decimation of species after species, and ocean acidification along with constant overfishing is severely hurting the shark. They’re wonderfully built animals with behavior and identification that I’ve always found amazing to learn about, but the one thing they can’t outfight seems to be humans.
Ocean acidification is the act of the ocean’s pH lowering due to levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the largest of the greenhouse gases. While this affects mostly calcifying organisms like coral or clams, whenever a shift occurs in an ecosystem it affects all levels. This decimation of coral and coral reefs leaves no habitat for a multitude of organisms and an overall decrease in their population. Many small fish rely on coral reefs as homes, and smaller sharks like the lemon shark or the Caribbean reef shark can even hunt and live there. An imbalance in the ocean’s pH can also affect the degree to which many predators can locate their prey in the water, and the navigation of both predominantly predator and prey species.
The biggest direct threat to sharks as well as much other ocean fish that I just haven’t focused on is fishing. While illegal in the United States and many other countries, it is still perfectly legal in most places to catch and kill sharks. Most of the time when this happens, shark shave their fins cut off for shark-fin soup and their bodies are either thrown back into the ocean or put into a catch of fish. This also means that products made of fish like fake crab meat or surimi, a fish-based paste, most likely will contain amounts of shark meat. And sharks, while excellent predators do not get attacked and killed much in the wild and thus do not reproduce very quickly. It takes most shark species years to come to mating maturity age and their gestational time is very long. Their litters of pups can range in amount but usually, a majority of baby sharks are killed before even reaching adolescence. This makes commercial overfishing of sharks specifically a huge problem.
It is, however, the act of corporate levels of overfishing that has lead to the decline of the shark population as well as countless other ocean species. Many groups of Indigenous peoples like Greenland Inuit or tribes of central or northern Nootka have a history of eating shark meat and/or using shark oil. A popular shark of these areas is the Greenland shark or the Dogfish shark. In specific regions like this, hunting is the main source of consumption and animals are used in a variety of ways. For example, shark oil can be used in lamps or their flesh can be preserved. From online experience, a lot of animal-focused activism can be insensitive when calling out the detrimental effects of consuming animals or using animal-based products, ignoring the history of why they are used. Take the above example of hunting being the main source of food and an animal’s body is used for a variety of purposes instead of having just their fins cut off for an upper-class food.
I want to make clear that the aim of this article is not to shame people into performing a mostly useless form of vegan activism. I won’t lie to you and say that not eating fish products on the off-chance they have shark meat is something you should do to try to protect ocean life overall because that doesn’t work. In expanding this to other animals, I’m not going to guilt you into stopping wearing fur or leather if that’s something you need to clothe yourself. It’s really really cold in some places! I am however shaming the mega-corporations that run profit on overfishing our seas, dumping waste into our oceans, and using fossil fuels that pollute our skies. I am yelling at uber-rich people for wearing furs for cruel fashion and not because they live in off-grid Alaska.
I’m very clearly super passionate about sharks specifically, but I still maintain the idea that it’s not individual people’s fault for this, even if you’re someone from Sri Lanka or Japan who eats shark meat because grassroots environmental activism will never work in the face of corporations whose goal is to make money and not to please the public.
If you can, vote for politicians and policy that will put regulations on companies that negatively impact the environment. Here’s a list of the top 20 companies that are the worst for our CO2 levels, just for example.
If you can, participate in political activism to spread awareness about this problem, focusing not on individual guilt but corporate-level change.
If you can, share this article or talk to your friends and family about this problem. The spread of education is the only way for us to build a public that is capable of taking on big oil and big coal and the big fishing industry that’s killing our planet.