Guardians of the Deep: Unveiling the Wonders and the Silent Extinction of Sharks and Rays
Live to swim, swim to live: July 14 is Shark Awareness Day, an annual reminder to raise awareness of these incredible creatures that roam the oceans. Sharks and rays belong to a group of fish known as elasmobranchs, which includes over 1,200 species. Sadly, in 2023 more than one-third of these species are at risk. Sharks and rays, in contrast to most fish, have skeletons formed of cartilage rather than bones, which gives them flexibility and helps them move gracefully in the water. They are not mammals like whales and dolphins; rays and sharks are fishes, and scientists are still discovering new species, showing how diverse oceans are.
“Sharks and rays play an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. They have a huge impact on regulating the populations of other marine species as apex predators, contributing to the overall health and stability of the seas”, comments Assaf Levy, CEO of BioDB.com, a new, non-profit conservation website. “Also, their scavenging behavior helps remove corpses and organic materials from the environment, contributing to nutrient cycling. Their presence can also create habitat diversity by influencing the behavior and distribution of other species.”
Today, however, they face numerous challenges. Overfishing, driven by demand for their meat, fins, and liver oil, is a major threat to their survival. Additionally, the unintended capture of sharks and rays in fishing nets, known as bycatch, further compounds the problem. Loss of habitats and prey, as well as human disturbances and the overall degradation of our oceans, also threaten their existence. A recent global research study, led by Colin Simpfendorfer at James Cook University in Australia, using thousands of underwater cameras reveals the alarming decline (60-75% below expected) of reef sharks due to overfishing, leading to a surprising consequence: rays are now dominating these ecosystems in their absence, showcasing the complex ecological dynamics in our oceans. The study sheds light on the cascading effects of human activities on marine life.
You might be surprised, but sharks are actually more in danger from us than we are from them! Yes, we humans pose a greater threat to these incredible creatures. The scary “Jaws” image is not the real deal here. One of the biggest dangers they face is shark finning- a cruel practice driven by the demand for shark fins. Shark finning involves removing the fins of live sharks and then discarding the remaining body back into the ocean, leaving the animals to suffer a slow and agonizing death. The demand for shark fins primarily stems from their use in shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in some cultures. This industry has thrived in regions where shark finning remains legal and poorly regulated.
We must all take action to protect sharks and help their protection. Raising awareness and educating others about the importance of sharks is a great spot to start. Supporting sustainable fishing practices and choosing responsibly produced seafood can make a significant difference. Governments must also play an important role by enacting strict conservation policies.
One significant international agreement to protect endangered species is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES regulates the international trade of certain species, including several species of sharks and rays. By listing threatened species under CITES, their trade can be controlled, reducing the risk of overexploitation. Governments can play a vital role by supporting and enforcing CITES regulations and protecting sharks and rays from unsustainable trade practices.
Let us acknowledge the importance of sharks and rays in our waters on Shark Awareness Day. We can contribute to protecting these amazing species and help restore the balance of our marine ecosystems by understanding the risks they face and taking action to protect them. Together, we can ensure a better future for sharks and the oceans in which they live.
By: Assaf Levy, BioDB
Author bio: Assaf Levy is the Founder & CEO of BioDB.com – a group tasked with collecting conservation data, raising awareness for biodiversity loss and fundraising.