As the ocean’s top predators, sharks provide us with many often overlooked ecosystem services. Perhaps most importantly they help maintain the diversity and abundance of marine species. They do this by keeping populations of lower predatory species in check; thereby ensuring lower trophic levels are not overexploited. It may be counter-intuitive but in this way, the presence of top predators like sharks actually promotes healthy fisheries and helps ensure sustainable exploitation of fish over the long term. Sharks are responsible for keeping other aspects of the marine food web in check as well. For example, they enjoy a diverse diet allowing them to target one prey item when it is in high abundance and shift to alternate prey items when a given population becomes reduced. They prevent herbivorous fish from overeating vegetation, provide essential food sources for scavengers, and remove sick or weak prey. All these services help maintain the health of our oceans. Therefore ensuring our continued benefit of ocean resources like fisheries and oxygen production.
Happy Sharks = Healthy Oceans
Examples of ecosystem consequences from reduced shark populations
Despite all sharks do for our oceans, we continue to kill millions of these crucial animals each year. Shark exploitation is a complicated story, often polarized by cruel practices like shark finning. Unfortunately, the issue extends far past solely shark finning and includes exploitation for other reasons including the use of shark liver, meat, cartilage and skin. We must address disrespectful and wasteful practices like shark finning but a more holistic approach that includes other forms of shark exploitation must also be considered in order to ensure the effective protection of our ocean’s top predators.
Shark finning is the cruel practice where the fins of an individual are removed and the body is thrown back into the ocean, likely dead or dying. The practice is not only cruel but also extremely wasteful as only a small portion of the animal is actually consumed. Asian markets where shark fin soup is in high demand due to its association with wealth comprise the primary market for shark fins.
Shark in Cosmetics???
Shark liver oil, also known as, squalene or squalane is commonly used in cosmetic products, some supplements, natural health remedies, and vaccines. The vast majority of its use, however, is driven by the cosmetics industry. Shark based squalene (and its derivative, squalane) are often used in sunscreen, foundation, skin moisturizers, lipstick, eye makeup, and many other products due to moisturizing, anti-wrinkle, and restorative properties. A plant-based derivative does exist and some cosmetics brands have committed to its use; however, inconsistent or nonexistent labelling regulations by region mean that the source of squalene is often unclear to consumers.
The market for shark meat has been steadily increasing according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This growth is driven by multiple factors. First, the demand for wild fish remains high while the potential for exploitation of wild fish populations is limited. Consumer demand for wild-caught fish, therefore, drives a large portion of the demand for shark meat. Shark meat is often labelled under misleading names to encourage consumer purchase and eliminate the stigma around buying shark products. Check out sharkwater.com for a list of commonly used names for shark meat. Some that you may have encountered already include Rock Salmon, Whitefish, or Lemon fish. Another factor contributing to the growth of the shark meat market is the widespread implementation of finning regulations that require the fins to be naturally attached to the carcass when the shark is landed. These regulations have potentially prompted the development of shark meat markets and simultaneously made shark conservation efforts drastically more complicated. Of course ‘fins naturally attached’ policies are extremely beneficial in eliminating the cruel practice of shark finning; however, they need to be coupled with other fisheries regulations to ensure the sustainable use of sharks.
What's the solution?
The multi-faceted exploitation of sharks does not come with a one size fits all solution. Instead, there are a few key changes that scientists are calling for to ensure shark populations are maintained at healthy levels into the future. For one, improved data collection and recording is essential to inform policy and regulations. The globalized nature of the shark products industry means that catch data are inconsistent across regions. This makes accurate analysis of utilization and trade very difficult. Regulations and policies will only be as good as the data that inform them so improved reporting will go a long way towards improved shark conservation. Other recommendations include improved trade monitoring, standardization of trade and fisheries management systems globally, and supporting legal and sustainable fisheries. To learn more about these international policy recommendations check out this report by the FAO.
What can you do about it?
Many changes are needed on international and national scales regarding fisheries regulations; however, there are meaningful actions that individuals can take. Here are a few:
- Support local petitions! Many local NGOs, conservation organizations, or citizen-led groups create petitions that put pressure on local governments to change shark exploitation laws. A quick Google search will find current petitions on the issue in your area. Because of the widespread nature of shark exploitation, it’s important that national and regional governments worldwide begin to make positive changes for shark conservation. If no petition exists in your region start your own!
- Educate yourself about hidden shark products in your favourite cosmetic brands: read here for more information, look at the ingredients lists on your cosmetics, and contact your favourite brands to see if they are using shark based squalene or squalane in any of their products. If the answer turns out to be yes put pressure on them to switch to a plant-based alternative.
- Write a letter to a cosmetics brand that is using squalene or squalane in their products and urge them to switch to a plant-based alternative.
- When buying seafood, be weary of commonly used names for shark and avoid buying these products. Here is a list of some of the most common names.
- Take the shark free pledge!
About the author: Kianna is currently a master’s student studying global ocean change. She is from the very landlocked city of Edmonton, Canada but discovered her love of the oceans through diving. She has worked on various conservation and research projects including cetacean monitoring, coral conservation, and as a scientific divemaster.