Should We Protect Sharks?

Learn why these fierce predators are essential to the marine ecosystem

A worker carries a shark at Muncar Port

 Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Sharks have a fierce reputation. Movies such as "Jaws" and sensationalized shark attacks in the news and on TV shows have led the public to believe that sharks need to be feared, or even destroyed. Of the 400 or so species of sharks, however, few seek human prey. In reality, sharks have much greater reason to be afraid of us than we do of them. Both sharks and humans would be better off if rather than blindly fearing them, we tried to understand them instead.

Understanding the Sharks' Role in the Ecosystem

It's true that sharks are ruthless predators, which leaves some people wondering if it really matters that millions of these marine killers are themselves killed each year. The short answer is yes.

Sharks are important for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with policing the ecosystems in which they live. A number of shark species are "apex predators," which means they're at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators of their own. The role of apex predators is to keep other species in check. Without them, the negative impact on an ecosystem could be severe for several reasons.

Removal of an apex predator can lead to increased populations of smaller predators, which in turn, may cause a decline in prey populations overall. Likewise, while it was once thought that culling shark populations might result in an increase in commercially valuable fish species, this has not proven to be the case. In fact, sharks actually help maintain robust fish stocks by feeding on weak, unhealthy fish, which decreases the chances for disease to spread through fish populations.

Threats to Sharks

  • Their natural biology—It takes sharks a long time to reach sexual maturity and reproduce, and the typical female shark produces few offspring per mating cycle. As a result, once a population is threatened, it can take a long time to recover.
  • Shark Finning—While the shark meat isn't always considered valuable, many species are prized for their fins, which are used to make shark fin soup and traditional medicines. Finning is a cruel practice in which a shark's fins are lopped off and the live shark is then tossed back into the sea to die. The fins don't have much flavor, but they have a prized texture or "mouth-feel." Bowls of shark fin soup can cost more than $100. Many governments have developed laws that require sharks to be landed with their fins intact but the practice continues.
  • Bycatch—Sharks are often unintentionally caught in the nets of commercial fishermen along with the fish they did mean to catch. Sharks require forward momentum to breathe. When trapped in a net, they often die.
  • Recreational Fishing—Some species of sharks are targeted by recreational and/or commercial fishing, which can result in overfishing. Many fishing tournaments and marinas are now encouraging catch-and-release practices.
  • Commercial Fishing—Many shark species have been harvested commercially for their meat, liver, and cartilage, as well as their fins.
  • Coastal Development—Many coastal areas are crucial to sharks for birthing young and as habitat for immature sharks and their prey. The more humans encroach on coastal lands, the less healthy habitat is available for sharks and other marine species.
  • Pollutants—When sharks eat tainted fish, they store pollutants such as mercury in their tissues through a process called bioaccumulation. The more the shark feeds, the higher the cumulative level of toxins becomes.
  • Shark Nets—According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), in 2018 there were 66 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks worldwide, with five reported fatalities. (This figure was lower than the 2013 to 2017 average of 84 human/shark interactions per year.) In an effort to keep humans and sharks separate, shark nets have been installed at some swimming beaches as a safety measure. When sharks get caught in these nets, unless quickly released, they suffocate and die.

How You Can Help Save Sharks

Want to help protect sharks? Here are some ways to help:

  • Sharks are threatened in large part because people believe they are voracious, indiscriminate predators. This is not the case. Learn about sharks and educate your friends and family.
  • Support laws protecting sharks and banning shark finning around the world.
  • Support shark research and conservation organizations by donating time or money. The more we learn about sharks, the more we learn about their importance.
  • Scuba dive with sharks responsibly and support reputable dive operators.
  • Do not consume or purchase shark products such as shark fin soup, shark leather, or jewelry.