Suffering in silence: the ignored plight of sharks

explores the implications of “licence to kill” permits for South Africa’s threatened predators

Imagine a world where it is legal for an individual to catch and kill ten dolphins per day. Now apply that to sharks. How would it differ? Well, the latter is actually true in South Africa; for just 80 rand, or 4 British pounds, a permit allows an individual to kill up to ten sharks per day.

While sharks kill fewer than 20 people per year, their own numbers suffer greatly in human hands. According to data published in the journal Marine Policy, the number of sharks killed per year could be anywhere between 63 million to 273 million. For a slow-growing and slow reproducing species, these numbers mean shark numbers are declining at a rate that will not allow populations to recover. Sharks are vulnerable to over-fishing, and with the current rate of exploitation and demand for delicacies such as shark fin soup in Asia, protective measures would

Image: Jason Brand, scuba diving in South Africa with ragged-tooth sharks.

Image: Jason Brand, scuba diving in South Africa with ragged-tooth sharks.

be crucial in order to prevent further depletion and the possibility of some shark species extinctions within our lifetime.

Shark finning is the act of removing shark fins, for example dorsal or pectoral fins, whilst the remainder of the shark is discarded back in to the ocean, often still alive and unable to move effectively. They then sink to the bottom and die from suffocation or are eaten by other predators. The food chain collapses.

Sharks are absolutely vital for any healthy marine ecosystem. Being an apex predator, and found in every ocean on earth, they keep the populations of other fish healthy and in proportion to their niche. Some sharks eat efficiently by scavenging the sea floor for carcasses to feed on (just as vultures do on land), and prey on the weakest fish of a population which keeps gene pools healthy. Intimidation by some sharks also allows prey to graze over a broader area and prevents overgrazing in one region.

But as shark populations decline, reefs are increasingly at risk of vanishing too. Coral reefs thrive when there are lots of fish to consume algae, which helps new corals to grow. But without sharks, fish disappear too and algae take over, suffocating the corals and turning the reef into a wasteland.

As a ‘keystone’ species, removing them from our oceans would cause food webs to collapse. The earth’s oceans make up seventy percent of the planet, and within them you can find over 400 shark species. They roam various aquatic habitats with a range of water temperatures, at the surface of the water to 2000m below. The Greenland shark is adapted to living under ice floats and can grow up to 7.3m, making them one of the largest of all fish, and the biggest in the Arctic.

Each year there are around 50-70 shark attacks around the world, with 5-10 of those being fatal. The numbers have risen in the past decades, but this is not because sharks have become more aggressive, humans have simply taken to coastal waters in increasing numbers. Of the 400 plus identified shark species, only around a dozen are deemed to be dangerous; great white (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger (Galeocerdo cuvier) and bull (Carcharhinus leucas) sharks are those involved in most human attacks.

Although some regions, such as the European Union, have banned shark finning, commercial fishing for fins, meat, liver oil, cartilage and other body parts are highly unregulated in other parts of the world, conservationists warn.

Sharks appeared on earth 400 million years ago, after surviving five huge planet extinction events. They are incredible animals. So when you think about the stigma around sharks, just think, who is the real predator?

 

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