Sunday, August 4, marks the beginning of a long running Discovery Channel tradition: Shark Week, a full week of programming dedicated to to sharks and programs aiming to educate about sharks.
Given the precarious situation sharks face in the wild, you'd think no one would have any qualms about Discovery Channel and the programming it shows during the Shark Week, but in recent years the programming Discovery has lined up for the week has done nothing but reports on such enlightening topics as "X number of sharks with the highest attack" or "X numbers of beaches with the greatest chance of shark attacks." I've been inspired because of that to write a series of lists to try and show people just what Shark Week is supposed to be about: Dispelling the myths and some of the fear surrounding one of the most environmentally vital animals our planet has.
What better way to begin than by listing four reasons why life on earth would suck without sharks?
As you might imagine of most predators, sharks will be as opportunistic as possible whenever possible. That means eating sick, weak and slow prey before the healthy, strong and fast prey. It doesn't take more than a rudimentary knowledge of genetics and reproduction to see that this means that sharks help ensure that the best possible genetics in their prey species get passed on to the next generation, but predation isn't their sole contribution to the ocean's health. Some shark scientists have hypothesized that sharks can intimidate the prey population in an area and prevent prey species from overfeeding/overgrazing a particular area.
Shark tourism is a lucrative, hundred-million-dollar-a-year industry. A team of scientists lead by one Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, a Ph.D. candidate in the fisheries economics research unit at the University of British Columbia, poured over data from 45 countries and compared the amount made through the shark finning industry against the ecotourism industry. While the landed market value of shark fisheries is currently greater than the ecotourism value ($630 million compared to $314 million), that number has been in decline over the past 10 to 15 years and will continue to drop as the unrestricted catching of shark species drives them further and further towards total extinction — and many species are very close.The $314 million figure is also expected to double to $700 million over the next 20 years.
Taking overfishing out of the equation, a lack of sharks is a sign that not all is right and good with whatever part of the ocean you happen to be in. Sharks are a versatile species, having evolved over their 450 million year existence to inhabit every ocean on the planet, and they have in that time also become keystone species in their respective food chains. And what happens when you take an important link out of a food chain? The natural balance is thrown off and the whole food chain goes haywire.
The first time I encountered a shark in the wild I was struck by one thing: How graceful it was. The way it glided through the water like nothing else remains one of the finest sights I've ever seen as a diver, and I'll never forget how it made me feel that first time. It doesn't matter just how many times I've seen them since, how many times I've watched sharks earn a place on a list like this, sharks are hands down one of the most amazing and fascinating creatures our planet has to offer, and losing them would be nothing short of horrible. Despite the bad reputation they have, sharks are some of the most fascinating creatures our planet has to offer, and to let them die out would definitely be a great crime on our part.