We’ve all seen the movies—the signature razor-sharp teeth, suspenseful music and murky underwater shots of one of the ocean’s mightiest predators quickly approaching its prey. With the airing of Shark Week approaching, there’s no better time to remember there’s much more to sharks than the movie villain version we so often see in theaters.
Whereas sharks are often portrayed as the scoundrelsof our waterways, these animals play a critical role in helping maintain healthy ocean ecosystems. Sharks keep marine populations in check, eating sick and weak prey to help improve the gene pool for stronger, healthier future generations. After sharks were seriously overfished around Australia, for instance, the octopus population increased dramatically and preyed heavily on spiny lobsters—decreasing the crustacean population and causing hardship to local lobster fishermen.
Sharks are a natural and critical ocean predator, but we often overlook the serious threats humans can pose to these species. An estimated 100 million–plus sharks are killed in the global shark fishery each year, and according to the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI), up to 73 million of them are killed annually for the fin trade alone.
In this often-gruesome practice fishermen remove a shark’s fins and discard the crippled animal back into the ocean—rendering it helpless and leaving it as food for other predators or to die of suffocation. This inhumane practice is prohibited by U.S. federal and state laws, but global demand continues to fuel the overexploitation of sharks.
The fin trade isn’t the only man-made threat these vital predators face. Like most marine species, sharks can become entangled in fishing line and netting, which can cause severe injuries and even death without prompt intervention. They’re also at risk from the growing amount of trash in our oceans; plastic bags, beverage containers and other garbage can kill sharks—and their prey—when ingested.
Although the situation for sharks is increasingly dire, the problem is not without a solution. For years SeaWorld and GHRI have worked side by side to increase scientific understanding of the issues facing these incredible fishes and their habitats. By tagging and tracking sharks in our oceans, we’re beginning to understand where they travel, which habitats they utilize and how their migrations intersect with fisheries. These joint projects have helped make significant advances to date; one recent GHRI study highlights findings that the shortfin mako fishing mortality rate is 10 times higher than previously reported, a discovery that has helped back U.S. approval of enhanced protections on the species.
Data from GHRI’s shark-tagging missions on multiple species around the world lives on its public tracking Web site, so anyone can keep up with tagged sharks’ latest locations—including several SeaWorld namesakes—and feel empowered to learn more about shark migrations, habitats and conservation. Additionally, educational programs across SeaWorld parks and rides, like the new Mako realm in Orlando, encourage visitors to learn about the species firsthand and find out how they, too, can help protect sharks—and have some fun doing it.
Other leaders in this space are also helping make strides in preserving these species for years to come. To combat the shark fin trade and its impact on the white shark, one of the most widely protected sharks in the world, SeaWorld is working alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to monitor the health of sharks. OCEARCH, another SeaWorld partner, provides an essential research platform to aid the study of white sharks. OCEARCH leads global expeditions to tag sharks and displays their tracks via its Global Shark Tracker—providing access to previously unattainable information and inspiring current and future generations of scientists and stewards of the ocean.
As we celebrate Shark Week, we must all keep in mind: It’s not on any one government, organization or research center to protect the sharks in our oceans. It is on all of us to stand up, support research and advocate for one of our ocean’s apex predators. We encourage you to take the first step: Explore the GHRI tracking Web site; visit a SeaWorld park or other accredited aquariums; learn more about other shark conservation organizations such as OCEARCH, WCS and the New York Aquarium. Knowledge is power, and the sharks across our oceans need our collective knowledge and help to survive.