Basking Shark | Chris Gotschalk photo

The basking shark is a species native to Atlantic Canadian waters and is the second largest fish species on Earth, measuring 8-10 metres in length. It is a filter feeder, satisfying its hunger with zooplankton – not people.
Photo by Chris Gotschalk

Do you know how many people were killed by sharks in 2014? Six. Do you know how many sharks were killed by people that same year? Around 100 million.

To say the least, these toothed fishes have been misrepresented in the media and on television, portrayed as blood thirsty super predators, when in reality they are a force for good in ocean ecology.

Marine conservation biologist Boris Worm explains how sharks act as a police force in marine environments: They keep smaller predator species in check lest they overpopulate and destabilize the entire ecosystem. This allows even smaller fish, like our commercial species, to prosper. It’s the kind of complexity we’ve come to expect from our oceans, where the largest predators in an ecosystem paradoxically boost fish stocks.

Sharks are the oldest predators that our oceans have ever known, surviving five great extinctions and even outliving the dinosaurs.

Sharks are the oldest predators that our oceans have ever known, surviving five great extinctions and even outliving the dinosaurs. Nearly every ocean ecosystem has formed under the watchful eyes of sharks. Imagine the shock to these ecosystems when you remove one of their founding members. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

International attention was brought to plummeting shark populations in a 2003 study conducted right here in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean (the east coasts of both Canada and the United States).

"We had data from 1986 to about 2000," said Boris Worm, who co-authored the 2003 study. "[We] saw these large 50-90 per cent declines [in shark populations] over that 15 year period. It was clear those trajectories would pose some species with the threat of extinction in the near future."

These local results were later shown to be a global trend, persisting to this day. The oldest predator on Earth is falling victim to us, one of the youngest, and the reason is appalling – soup. The controversial practice of “finning” was banned in Canadian waters in 1994 and recently across the entire North Atlantic Ocean, but still in many regions it’s legal to catch a shark, cut off its fins and discard the bleeding, suffering animal back in the ocean to die. Their fins become the key ingredient in shark fin soup.

I can’t think of a less dignified end for this magnificent collection of ocean predators.

RELATED: "Saving Our Oceans" TV series – Sharks in the Soup

Even with finning banned in Canada, sharks are still dying locally as by-catch. They become entangled in our nets or are caught on longlines. I hasten to add this is problematic for fishermen as well, pulling in longlines with dozens or sometimes hundreds of sharks hanging off them. Members of the fishing and scientific communities are looking for solutions to this expensive problem, but it is still very much ongoing.

21 species of shark have been reported in Atlantic Canadian waters and the Arctic, with nearly half being considered as endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Among them are the blue shark, the most common in Atlantic Canada; the Greenland shark, which lives farther north than any other species; the porbeagle shark, the only species still fished in Canada; and of course there are the whale and basking sharks, the two largest species of fish on the planet.

To learn more about these wonderful animals and what you can do to prevent their extinction, I encourage you to visit The contributions of sharks to ocean health cannot be overstated. We should approach their conservation with tenacity and be grateful that it’s not too late.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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