Whether you love sharks, hate them or fear them, whether you see them locked inside a cage (you, not the shark), in the wild or in a movie, one thing is for sure: they make your heart beat faster. And for good reason! Yes, they could potentially kill you (although chances are extremely slim – more on that later), but they are also some of the most fascinating creatures on this planet. Let’s talk about why you should care about sharks!

What makes sharks so cool?

Where do I start? Maybe with the fact that they can use electric fields to detect the heartbeat of prey? Or that they can see 10 times better than humans and have panoramic viewing capabilities? The list of shark fun facts is endless. They can regrow their teeth, travel as fast as 74 km/h, and yes – it’s true that they can sense blood in the water. Sorry, I’m not done yet! They can also generate their own heat, to help them maintain their body temperature as the ocean temperature changes. Or, you know, heat up their eyeballs to improve vision. One shark species glows in the dark, others can walk on land. Sharks are cool, they are indispensable – and unfortunately they’re also in danger.

Are sharks scary?

Sharks are predators. But the good news is that humans are not on their menu! Despite their scary reputation, sharks rarely attack humans and would much rather feed on marine animals. But what about all those news reports about shark attacks? It’s true that shark attacks on humans do happen occasionally, but this is usually when they feel threatened or if they confuse humans for their normal prey. To be fair, the moment you’re under attack by a shark you probably don’t care whether it’s done on purpose or by mistake, but let’s take a look at the numbers.

Sharks kill an average of 6 humans a year worldwide. Compare this to elephants (who kill 500 humans yearly), dogs (35,000 human deaths yearly) and mosquitoes (750,000 human deaths yearly), and it becomes clear that sharks are not actually a huge threat to us. Still, you don’t want to be one of those 6 people, but it’s important to realize that only about a dozen of the more than 500 shark species have been involved in attacks on humans. While there are certain species that I’d probably avoid (unlike other people), I find them highly fascinating and respect them more than any other ocean creature. You can love sharks without wanting to cuddle all of them.

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, and are extremely docile. They are very safe to swim or dive with.
Photo by Klaus Stiefel

A (not so) brief history of sharks

There are over 500 species of sharks that we know of today, but in the past there were even more. Fossil records suggest that at a certain point, over 3,000 species of sharks existed. The history of the shark goes 450 million years back. In comparison, the first human ancestors only showed up around 7 million years ago. Prehistoric sharks looked much weirder than the sharks we know today, but they had the same basic features. But most importantly, they were tenacious: while dinosaurs and many other animals were wiped out 65 million years ago, sharks continued to exist. In fact, sharks were able to survive as many as 5 mass extinction events. It’s hard to summarize 450 million years of evolution in one paragraph, but if you’re interested, check out this fascinating timeline.

From predator to prey

Fast forward a few million years to 2020: sharks are finally facing extinction – with a little bit of help from the human race. Climate change, pollution and habitat destruction are all contributing factors towards their declining numbers, but the main threat to their survival is overfishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a quarter of all shark species are facing extinction. Although sharks have survived several mass extinctions, the rate at which their populations are being reduced by humans is extreme.

It’s estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by humans per year. That’s 273,000 dead sharks a day, and 11,415 per hour. At this very moment, a fleet of 260 Chinese fishing vessels is emptying the waters around the Galapagos islands, fishing for sharks. Why there? Because the waters in and around their own territory are already depleted, and the Galapagos Islands has the highest diversity of marine life forms in the world. Each vessel is estimated to have 100,000 hooks – that is 26 million hooks at the same time. Mother ships collect cargo from the fishing vessels, meaning the fishing vessels can continue fishing without ever having to go back to shore. Read all about the Galapagos crisis here.

Why we kill sharks

You might ask yourself why we humans love killing sharks so much. There’s a wide array of products that contain shark as an ingredient, such as energy drinks, pet supplements, vitamins, lotions, dog chew toys, and even lipsticks. But before we discuss those, let’s look at the most common reason why hundreds of thousands of sharks are being murdered on a daily basis: their fins.

Shark finning

Shark fins are sold legally throughout the world. Typically they’re used for soup, but there are many other delicacies that contain shark fins. Shark fin soup is a traditional Chinese delicacy that is often served at celebratory events such as banquets, weddings and New Years celebrations. It’s considered a luxury item associated with prosperity, status and good fortune. Once only reserved for the elite because of its price, shark fin soup is getting more and more common as the Chinese middle class is getting wealthier. Surprisingly, shark fins are flavorless, and the soup gets its taste from the broth – often chicken stock.

Thousands of sharks are being killed on a daily basis for their fins
Photo by Nicholas Wang

Because shark fins are so valuable, sharks are often killed just for their fins through the horrific practice of shark finning. It’s done by cutting the fins off sharks and discarding the animal back into the ocean while it is often still alive. Unable to swim without their fin, they either drown or are eaten by other predators.

If you think that this has nothing to do with you because you’re from a western country and don’t eat shark fin soup, think again. The European Union, the UK and the United States are some of the key players in the global shark fin trade. Canada was the first (and only) country in the world to ban shark fin imports in 2019.

shark cosmetics

Squalene/squalane is an oil that is derived from the shark’s liver and is used in cosmetic products ranging from anti-aging creams, lotions, deodorants, hair conditioners, eye shadows, lipstick, lip balms, sunscreen, and cleansers.

Other products with shark ingredients

  • Shark cartilage as a dietary supplement and alternative medicine
  • Shark meat, often re-branded with a more appealing name such as;
    • “Rock Salmon”; commonly served in British fish & chips shops
    • ‘Saumonette” in France
    • “Schillerlocken” or “Seeaal” in Germany
    • “Whitefish fillet” in Australia and New Zealand
    • It’s also globally used in surimi
  • Shark leather can commonly be found globally (yes, also in Western countries) and is even used by major brands such as Nike
  • Shark teeth and jaws for jewelry
  • Pet products such as dog and cat food
  • Energy drinks 

Why you should care

Being responsible for the extinction of a 450 million years old creature is not exactly something to be proud of. But even if you don’t care about that (maybe because you don’t have a soul), there are other reasons why you should care about the death of 100 million sharks per year.

In short: if we don’t protect sharks, we put the health of our planet as a whole at risk. That may sound far fetched, but it’s really not. Sharks play a vital role in keeping our oceans – and therefore our planet – healthy. They’re apex predators, which means they’re at the top of the food chain, without natural predators. If the number of such a predator declines, the whole ecosystem in which they exist can become dangerously unbalanced. They are considered a keystone species, meaning that if they are removed from the food chain, the whole structure could collapse. 

How does this work? By limiting the abundance of their prey, they also affect the prey of those animals, and so on throughout the food web. They also strengthen the gene pool of prey species. Because sharks tend to hunt old, injured or sick fish, they keep the populations of their prey healthy. That way only the strongest and healthiest fish survive and reproduce. 

But even their indirect impact on the marine ecosystem shouldn’t be underestimated. The decline of sharks has been linked to the decline of seagrass beds and coral reefs, both of which are vital to the health of the planet. Seagrass and seaweed are the primary producers of the organic carbon that all animals in the ocean food web need to survive. Coral reefs protect our coasts from waves, storms and floods. They generate half of the Earth’s oxygen, and extracts are used for medicine.

What you can do

By now you hopefully understand why you should care about sharks! But surely there’s not so much that you can do about it personally, right? Actually, there is!

Sign petitions

There are currently many petitions going around to stop illegal (shark) fishing, ban shark finning and the transportation of it. Signing these will literally take 5 minutes of your time.

Check your airline

Airlines play a role in carrying shark fins by air cargo. Eliminating this method of transport in the fin trade is an important step in shark conservation. Fly Without Fins is a great initiative that holds airlines responsible for contributing to the shark fin trade.

Check your cosmetics

Shark-based squalene is commonly used by many consumer product and cosmetic brands. Many well known brands have already vowed to discontinue the use of squalene, but the easiest way to find out is to just check the ingredients of your favorite products. Be aware that squalene can come from both animals and plants. Squalene that is not shark-based is labeled “vegetable”, “vegetable based” or from “vegetable origins”.

Ban restaurants that serve shark fin soup

Even if you don’t eat shark fin soup yourself, by supporting businesses that serve it you’re indirectly contributing to the shark fin industry. Even though serving shark fin soup is illegal in most western countries, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Know what you eat

If you eat fish, make sure you know what you’re eating and where it comes from. If the fish has a vague name, or one that you’ve never heard of, chances are it’s something you don’t want to eat and has been re-branded. Also, if you don’t like the idea of eating plastic, you might want to reconsider eating fish altogether. If you have pets, also check the ingredients of their food.

Donate

Have some extra cash to spare? Consider making a donation to organizations like Shark Guardian. Another cool initiative is Project Hiu, that provides alternative income to fishermen in Indonesia by giving them jobs in tourism.

After reading all of this, I hope you agree with me that sharks are awesome! They deserve our respect and they urgently need our protection. Do you have any other suggestions for what we can do to help sharks? Drop them in the comments or contact me here.

1 Comment

  1. This is a great piece Iris. You’ve definitely informed me of some facts I wasn’t aware of yet, thank you for that. I’ve signed all the petitions that I could sign. Let’s keep on sharing the knowledge!

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