Shark: An Icon on the Rise

A great hammerhead shark (Sphyma mokarran) cruises over a shallow sand flat off the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

Over the course of millions of years, sharks have earned their reputations as effective and impressive predators. The first humans to encounter these animals must have been astonished, afraid and fascinated — attitudes that continue to this day. Historically, we have hunted sharks, displayed them as trophies and eaten them; only recently have we learned how vulnerable they are to our presence. Through the growing awareness that sharks actually require our protection, a global conservation movement was born.

Still, perspectives toward sharks remain mixed. While many popular media outlets such as Discovery Channel's sensationalistic Shark Week consistently stoke our fear, convincing us that shark attacks are ever prevalent and always on the rise, sharks are also one of the most popular groups of wild animals on the planet. People love to watch them and will pay serious money to observe them in the water. Some students happily sacrifice several years of their lives, in addition to substantial monetary investment, simply to be able to study them. Play your cards right, and you can even become a shark celebrity, featured on some of the many popular documentaries about these compelling creatures. In 2014, fictional sharks were hurled from within tornadoes — for the second time. If a shark is spotted from a boat, the evening news immediately broadcasts the event. Stock in sharks is higher than it has ever been, but has the newfound ubiquity of the shark in popular culture blurred the truth about the animal's status?

About 25 percent of all shark species are threatened with extinction. The issue, however, is actually much more complex. Many shark species are vulnerable to even low levels of fishing pressure. For example, one species of thresher shark gives birth to only two pups every year, and it takes them nearly 13 years to reach maturity. It is not difficult to imagine why this species would be at particular risk. Similarly, the shark-fin market is responsible for the death of tens of millions of sharks every year. Some species have declined more than 90 percent in recent years and will likely require decades under informed management before they begin to show signs of population recovery.

From a conservation standpoint, however, there is much to celebrate. Modern-day research into sharks truly stands on the shoulders of giants who pioneered the study of these enigmatic species. Countless groups of researchers spend significant time at sea, in conference meeting halls, behind closed doors and on the heated policy frontlines to collect data and craft policies designed to implement protective measures and sustainable strategies for shark management. A great example of their accomplishments can be seen in the recent success of the white shark, which is showing signs of recovery on both the east and west coasts of the United States, according to research published this year.

Today people can track the daily movements of tagged sharks in real time from their smartphones. A variety of corporations — even sunglasses companies — are donating to support shark conservation. Researchers continue to make unbelievable discoveries in places such as the deep sea, where a new species of shark is described every few weeks on average. We still know almost nothing about these species or the status of their populations, and their existence remains overshadowed by the large and sexy "A-list" species.

Great progress has been made in recovering shark populations in many regions and for several species, but don't let the commercials, news stories or movies fool you. The number of sharks along our coasts is not suddenly increasing. Indeed, there have been important regional conservation wins, but the issue is truly global — a point highlighted by the government of Western Australia, which last year used lethal shark-control measures to mitigate a spike in shark attacks that occurred over the past several years. While their concerns may be real, such measures will not remedy the issue.

In stories of negative encounters between sharks and humans, humans tend to be the losers, so it is easy to see why we may perceive an apparent rise in shark encounters as evidence of the animals' increased abundance, but there are no scientific data to prove this correlation. This discrepancy between perception and reality shows that shark conservation is as much a social issue as it is ecological.

While public attitudes and policies related to the status of sharks may change over time, the animal's slow-growing nature and low reproductive output will not. We still eat them, but great strides are being made to curb the demand for shark-related products. Education and awareness are still paramount, and we should continue to stand up for sharks and serve as leaders in our communities. With effective outreach and research combined with efforts to dispel incorrect information, sharks may continue their rise into the stratosphere of popular culture and may one day recover and flourish in oceans around the world once again.

Watch the Video
Bold — A Waterlust Film about Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

© Alert Diver — Fall 2014