A major new research study has found that overfishing is driving coral reef sharks rapidly toward extinction, with global declines of 70% and no sharks found at all on many reefs.
Georgia Aquarium was part of the massive Global FinPrint study, published recently in the respected journal Science, which was conducted at nearly 400 reefs in 67 countries using about 23,000 underwater video stations.
Sharks keep the ocean food chain healthy, eating sick, weak animals and keeping individual species from taking over reef ecosystems. When sharks disappear, it sets off a significant chain reaction throughout the ocean.
The new research found that on reefs where sharks were gone, the number of rays had expanded significantly, creating a serious imbalance in the ocean’s food web – which many people rely on, too.
The biggest declines were in five common species: grey reef sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, nurse sharks, and blacktip and whitetip reef sharks.
Dayne Buddo, Ph.D. and director of Georgia Aquarium’s Global Ocean Policy, has worked extensively in the waters off Jamaica, where the research found low numbers of reef sharks, especially near the shore. In Jamaica, the issue isn’t catching of the sharks themselves, but the fish they love to eat.
Private and commercial fishing for sharks’ prey – like grouper, jacks and snapper – are popular there. And when those fish disappear, so do the sharks.
Georgia Aquarium is working with Jamaica to establish large marine protected areas, or MPAs.
“The protected areas are working, but they need to be bigger and cover more areas,” Buddo said.
Where those protections are in place, sharks and the fish they eat are slowly coming back. But it will take a while for these fish species to recover.
It’s also an uphill battle to convince local communities, including fishers who hunt using spears and fish pots, to protect sharks.
“There is a tremendous fear of sharks and the overall ocean,” Buddo said. “When sharks go after the fish caught by spear fishers, it causes serious conflicts. Seeing a brother or cousin hurt by sharks seriously damages conservation efforts.
“So we must not just set aside protected areas for sharks – we have to change people’s minds about why sharks matter, and teach fishers how to avoid and protect themselves against sharks. The key is involving people – the public, schools, entire communities and government policy makers – in the solutions,” he added. “That’s where the answer lies.”Tourism offerings, such as shark diving, can help save sharks by providing a valuable alternative way for local residents to feed their families.
Georgia Aquarium’s shark residents are helping change fear to fascination, too, by teaching visitors about sharks’ important role in our oceans.
“When we change people’s minds about these species, it’s a powerful tool to help us protect them,” Buddo said. “We’re making a difference.”
Researcher Colin Simpfendorfer of the James Cook University and the University of Tasmania was the lead author on the study. Read more here.
Georgia Aquarium is a leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Atlanta, Ga. that is Humane Certified by American Humane and accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Georgia Aquarium is committed to working on behalf of all marine life through education, preservation, exceptional animal care, and research across the globe. Georgia Aquarium continues its mission each day to inspire, educate, and entertain its millions of guests about the aquatic biodiversity throughout the world through its engaging exhibits and tens of thousands of animals across its eight major galleries.