For over 400 million years, sharks have greatly inhabited the ocean’s open waters. However, in a recent turn of events, their populations are beginning to decline due to human’s two greatest instincts; fear and food.

For a long time, humans and sharks lived in peace. The idea that sharks were mostly harmless and that they don’t actually bite people, was the popular belief of the time. We ignored them for the most part and they ignored us, however in 1916, everything changed. A series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey created a nationwide panic, that would soon get the name the “twelve days of terror”. Beginning on July 1st and continuing until the 12th, five people were attacked and only one person survived. This was not only one of the greatest tragedies of the time, but also one of the inspirations for the well known movie and book, “Jaws”. After these attacks, the distrust towards sharks began to increase greatly and thus started their very own century of terror for these creatures of the sea.

There are three main reasons shark populations are decreasing; shark finning, food, and the ongoing fear. After these attacks, people began to see these docile creatures as the fierce man-eaters that these animals are described as today. In a way, sharks became the bogeyman of the sea and everyone was out for their blood. These creatures, once apex predators, have now become the prey. For years now, their populations have been declining and are continuing to do so. It is said that we are losing around 100 million sharks every year, whether for food or simply for the pleasure of hunting them.

One of the methods for hunting sharks is called shark finning. This is when a fisherman will simply cut off the dorsal fin of the shark and throw the leftover body back into the ocean, usually still alive. Because of its cultural significance, the dorsal fin is the most expensive part of the whole body. In quite a lot of Chinese cultures, shark fin soup is a fine delicacy that promotes the status of the families, so their need for shark fins is incredibly high.

We had THREE more sightings of #Hammerheadsharks today!!! #Awesome day on the water! #sharkweek #sharkweek2015 #sharkweekeveryweek #capemay #newjersey

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In every ecosystem, there is a certain balance that is needed in order to maintain a successful and healthy world. However, with the decline of these shark populations, scientists are beginning to worry that they may cause torrential consequences for the environment, if it continues. Because of how complicated these systems are, one little ripple or disturbance could completely disrupt everything that the environment has sustained for so long. There have been a few conservation efforts, such as the “2010 Shark Conservation Act”, however, it is important that we make more progress if we still wish to see these creatures in the future.  

-Sarah Caplan, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Roanoke College

References

  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017, ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/shark-finning-sharks-turned-prey.
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017, news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150702-shark-attack-jersey-shore-1916-great-white/.
  3. https://stanford.edu/~ferretti/assets/LenfestRSEcologyLetters.pdf
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/how-a-century-of-fear-turned-deadly-for-sharks/.