Sharks are some of Earth’s oldest inhabitants, outliving the dinosaurs. But they are slow-growing, late-maturing and produce few young, which, in current times, makes them vulnerable; an estimated 100 million are killed every year. In 2021 a global IUCN study found that one-third of the world’s chondrichthyan fishes – sharks, rays, and chimaeras – are now threatened with extinction.
As ’keystone species’ sharks have such an impact on the marine environment that, in their absence, a vast web of life would fall apart. With that web facing increasing pressure from climate change, fishing and pollution, sharks’ precipitous decline puts countless other species at risk, including humans living in coastal communities. Keeping shark populations healthy means keeping whole ocean ecosystems healthy: a duty we can’t ignore.
Overfishing is one of the main threats and while many fishers don’t target sharks, they frequently catch them by accident – known as ‘bycatch’. Even small-scale coastal fisheries can have a catastrophic effect if they operate in nursery areas. Other fishers do target sharks for their meat, gills and liver, while the shark-finning trade continues to grow. Recreational shark fishing has also become a popular sport.
Their vulnerability and over-exploitation is not aided by our public perception. These apex predators are often the victims of sharp-toothed media sensation.
But they have long been held sacred by many older, wiser cultures including in the Solomon Islands and on Hawaii, where families believe their ancestors are reincarnated as aumakua (family guardians) in the form of plants, minerals or animals. This Indigenous wisdom recognises sharks as a species essential to ecological, and spiritual, equilibrium – a lesson we would do well to learn the ocean over.
Gaia is delighted to be partnering with two exciting new projects in the Southwest Atlantic, both working to protect sharks directly as well as restoring marine habitat and engaging coastal communities.
In Brazil, the Instituto Brasileiro de Conservação da Natureza (IBRACON) will be working in the southern Rio de Janeiro state. A three-year project, Sharks of Ilha Grande Bay, aims to stem the decline in sand tiger and blacktip sharks. This project will:
- Strengthen public policies aimed at shark conservation
- Collaborate with tourism and diving enterprises
- Contribute towards better spatial management of key marine areas
Further south, Uruguay’s Atlantic coast is a breeding, nursery and feeding area for the narrownose smooth-hound, dusky smooth-hound, tope and sand tiger sharks, among other remarkable species. A new organisation, Che Wirapitá, will be launching an ambitious pilot project: Dangerous or Endangered? Sharks in Uruguay. Che Wirapitá will:
- Raise awareness of the diversity and beauty of sharks among fishers, authorities, schools and journalists
- Encourage the adoption of conservation measures from a local to national level
- Aim to change public perception to such an extent, that sharks can be proudly considered a flagship species for Uruguay’s marine protected areas
Thanks to support from Sharks Conservation Fund, both partner organisations will show that a more positive relationship with sharks is possible.