Shark Week 2018

You Can Help Sharks This Shark Week!

Bull shark in Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

By John Calvelli
July 24, 2018

Last month brought the long-awaited debut of the eye-popping Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium. And by long-awaited, I mean this was at least a decade in the making. It was worth the wait; the exhibit is truly a transformative experience.

Ocean Wonders: Sharks! will serve as an entry point for millions of New Yorkers, visitors, and — most importantly — children to learn about our much maligned but truly unique and special neighbors in the sea. Whether walking through the coral reef tunnel while sharks seemingly float over your head, engaging with interactive displays demonstrating shark behaviors and the perils they face, or taking in the panoramic Canyon’s Edge which showcases up close some of the sharks that call New York waters home, the entire thing is a breathtaking encounter.

“Shark Week gets headlines for the gory stories of shark attacks that drive television ratings but which come up short when it comes to their depiction of these amazing animals.”

Sharks have been on my mind as I’ve watched WCS’s great aquarium team prepare to unveil this jewel of an exhibit to the world. But for most of the world, the multitude of species that comprise this class of cartilaginous marine fish is just hitting the spotlight. That’s right: Shark Week is here.

Shark Week gets headlines for the gory stories of shark attacks that drive television ratings but which come up short when it comes to their depiction of these amazing animals. Over the years, the conservation community has pushed back against the inaccurate stereotypes spread by some of this programming, nudging the conversation back toward a more accurate appraisal of these fascinating creatures.

Across the globe plastic pollution is deadly for marine life, which all too often gets tangled in it or mistakes it for food. Graphic by Leijas.

Sharks and their relatives — rays and skates — are incredibly diverse. There are more than 1,250 species of fish we call “cartilaginous” due to skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone. They come in all shapes and sizes. The docile whale shark can grow up to 40 feet long, while the dwarf lanternshark tops out at about 8 inches. Sharks have a variety of diets and behaviors; some spend their entire lives where they were born, and some travel the world.

There is still much to learn about sharks. Researchers in Florida are currently studying the immune systems of shark cartilage for clues about human medical challenges. Wounds sustained by sharks begin to heal almost immediately, and sharks rarely get cancer despite ingesting plenty of carcinogens. Perhaps there are genetic lessons to be learned from sharks that can be applied elsewhere.

These ecologically important creatures are declining globally. Overfishing is the primary threat to sharks and their relatives, which are caught to supply demand for fins, meat, oil, and other products. As many as one-quarter of shark, ray, and skate species are threatened with extinction, and the conservation status of nearly half is poorly known. These fishes are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation. They grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young.

“We must make sure that fisheries around the world conserve and manage shark populations sustainably. That requires both an informed public and the political will to take action.”

That is what makes shark conservation so essential now. We must make sure that fisheries around the world conserve and manage shark populations sustainably. That requires both an informed public and the political will to take action. Luckily, recently introduced bipartisan legislation would go a long way toward addressing this crisis.

The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, which was introduced in Congress this year, would require that imports of shark, ray, and skate parts and products to the U.S. be permitted only from countries certified by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as having in place and enforcing management and conservation policies for these species comparable to the U.S. — including science-based measures to prevent overfishing and provide for recovery of stocks, and a similar prohibition on the abhorrent practice of shark finning.

Cow-nose ray in the New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

This science-based approach to conserving sharks, rays, and skates has support from conservation organizations, zoos and aquariums, shark scientists, and the U.S. fishing industry. Incentives laid out by the legislation can create a ripple effect making all the world’s oceans a better home for cartilaginous fish.

So wherever you catch a glimpse of sharks this week — whether from the comfort of your television, at the New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit, or (if you are lucky) at sea — take a moment to imagine what the world would be like without these creatures. Then, let your Member of Congress and your Senator know that you care about sharks and that they should support the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act.

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John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Director of the Give a Sip campaign.