Sharks are commonly misunderstood and widely feared. These remarkable animals, however, are incredibly important for overall ocean health and, in particular, for coral reefs.
Sharks are often “apex” or top predators, helping to regulate species abundance and diversity while maintaining balance throughout an ecosystem. Studies have shown that coral reef ecosystems with high numbers of apex predators tend to have greater biodiversity and higher densities of individual species.
The loss of apex predators in a reef ecosystem upsets the natural food web and changes the composition of the reef community, eventually leading to the decline of critical reef species like herbivorous fish. With fewer herbivores, algae can become overgrown, suffocating the reef and reducing the number of available niches for fish species.
In addition to being important for overall ecosystem health, sharks are also valuable to the tourism industry and to the economic health of coral reef destinations. A recent report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that shark tourism accounts for approximately eight percent of the G.D.P of the island nation of Palau. The study showed that the roughly one hundred sharks inhabiting the most popular dive sites in the area were each worth $179,000 annually to the local tourism industry, giving each shark an approximate lifetime value of $1.9 million.
Despite their ecologic and economic value, shark populations are declining at an alarming rate. Roughly 30 percent of shark species are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction, and the status of another roughly 50 percent is unclear due to insufficient data.
Intense commercial fishing is largely to blame for the decline, and shark finning-the practice of removing a shark’s fins and discarding the rest of the animal to die at sea-is particularly rampant. This practice is driven by demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy that creates a lucrative market for shark fins.
Because sharks reproduce late in life and bear few offspring, scientists fear that some severely depleted populations may take hundreds of years to rebuild. This alarming prospect has compelled conservationists, scientists, and government officials to join together to push for greater shark protection.
Recently, Palau and the Maldives have created shark sanctuaries by prohibiting commercial shark fishing in their countries’ exclusive economic zones. Honduras also implemented a shark fishing moratorium and Hawai’i has now instituted a retention ban aimed at prohibiting the possession of shark fins in state waters. Indonesia recently signed a shark and ray sanctuary into law. In Fiji we have worked with our partners to get better protection for sharks through wide-reaching media and education campaigns.
These initiatives will educate communities about their vested stake in preserving healthy shark populations to support the coral reef ecosystems that provide them with food, income, and coastal protection. Additional shark sanctuaries and conservation policies are gaining momentum around the world.