Calling all Shark Fans. There’s a new way to take action for sharks. #CleanUpforSharks is a global awareness initiative that combines beach cleans with shark protection. Sea Fans welcomes Cindy and Simran from the Shark and Marine Research Institute to tell us more. And, how you could win a week volunteering at a shark research organisation in South Africa…
Authors: Cindy Tilney & Simran Rupra
Why are sharks endangered?
Our oceans are under fire from all angles, from climate change and habitat loss, to oil leakages and overfishing. In addition, one of the most powerful players in our ocean’s demise is marine debris. The United Nations Environment Programme reported that every year, pollution – particularly plastic – causes the deaths of over 100,000 marine creatures and one million seabirds. Their research also indicated that every square mile of ocean contains an estimated 46,000 pieces of micro-plastics – plastics that have broken down into small pieces.
Another major impact on our marine ecosystems is the loss of apex predators. This loss disrupts the food chain resulting in potentially devastating consequences. For example, in South Africa there is an area that was previously dubbed ‘Shark Alley’. This was once a regular haunt of great whites. They would move between Geyser Rock and Dyer Island hunting their favourite source of prey – young cape fur seals. Poachers have gradually pilfered all the abalone (called perlemoen here in South Africa) in that gulley. As a result, the kelp – usually fed on by the abalone – has flourished beyond control. Great whites tend to avoid swimming through kelp forests, so as a result there are no more white sharks in Shark Alley.
Some shocking statistics
That remaining population of great white sharks in South Africa is at a critical mass. In 2015, the University of Stellenbosch published a study that found that the local population of white sharks had dropped to between 353 and 522. Furthermore, the maximum number of breeding individuals was estimated to be at most 293 pairs. This is well below the critical mass of 500 pairs required to increase the existing population.
Great whites are not the only sharks who play a key role in our marine ecosystems. There are other smaller shark species that can be found along our coastline. However there is not enough research yet to know how threatened they are in conservation terms. Due to their lack of protection, they may be a dwindling source of food for larger species such as great whites and bronze whalers.
Around 100,000 sharks are killed every year
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists 30% of all sharks and rays as threatened with extinction. Top of that list are wedgefish, giant guitarfish and sawfish. The sawfish is one of the more bizarre looking members of the elasmobranch family (a group of cartilaginous fish that includes sharks, rays and skates, among others). The sawfish is named for the long, saw-like snout (rostrum) that makes up 20 to 28% of its body length. This ‘saw’ is equal in width all the way down and has a rounded tip and sharp, tooth-like spikes on either side. Scientists estimate that sawfish have declined by over 90% of their original numbers across all species.
Who is the Shark and Marine Research Institute?
We founded the Shark and Marine Research Institute four years ago to realise our dream of contributing to marine conservation and above all protecting our sharks. Sharks are beautiful and misunderstood creatures that play a vital role in maintaining the health and vitality of our oceans. Our programme is based in the coastal town of Gansbaai in South Africa, roughly two hours from the city of Cape Town.
The South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) awarded us a permit allowing us to carry out catch-and-release tagging and genetic sample collection on smaller shark species on our research boat. Our tagging data contributes to a database compiled by the Oceanographic Research Institute, as well as our own research. We also work with the University of Stellenbosch on a shark genetic study and dorsal fin ID study. We hope that our ongoing research and conservation efforts will help protect this apex predator that is so critical to our oceans.
Our latest conservation initiative is #CleanUpforSharks – and we would love for you to join us!
What is #CleanUpforSharks?
We’ve teamed up with Bimini Shark Lab in the Bahamas and Salt Water Life in Scotland to organise global beach clean-ups focused on highlighting the plight of sharks, rays and elasmobranchs. Our Clean Up for Sharks initiative is focused on creating an international network of groups and organisations who carry out regular coastal clean ups. These will help to stop the devastating effect of pollution on our marine environment and its creatures.
Our clean ups are done using the Dirty Dozen methodology. Designed by a researcher from the University of Cape Town, this simple system of recording trash helps identify the top culprits of marine pollution. This information is then used to form policies that mitigate their impact in the future. We plan to carry out our #cleanupforsharks sessions once a season, and more regularly in the future. We want as many individuals and organisations across the planet to join in – will you?
How can you join #CleanUpforSharks?
It’s easy! Simply start your own group of #CleanUpforSharks warriors who are willing to get their hands dirty saving our oceans and its creatures. Speak to your friends, families, co-workers, local schools or community groups. Get a group together that is prepared to commit to regular marine clean ups in your area.
#CleanUpforSharks and win a trip to South Africa*
We are running an awesome initiative to inspire people from all walks of life to join together and Clean Up for Sharks! Simply post pictures of your clean up on Instagram and use the hashtags #CleanUpforSharks, and #sharkmarineinstitute, We’ll then enter you into an exciting draw to win a week’s stay with the Shark & Marine Research Institute in South Africa! One lucky person will be living the ocean conservationist’s dream when they get randomly chosen as the winner! What are you waiting for?! Show us your bags!
*Flights not included
- Sharks have been living in our oceans for 450 million years – they’re older than trees!
- A shark’s skeleton is made entirely out of lightweight, flexible cartilage.
- Sharks have the thickest skin of any animal species – some even 6 inches thick!
- Bull sharks can live in both fresh and saltwater.
- Sharks rely on electro-reception to navigate the ocean and pinpoint prey.
- Sharks cannot swim backwards.
- An average shark has 40-45 teeth in up to seven rows. Sharks lose teeth regularly and can go through 30,000 teeth in their lifetime.
- The greenland shark is the longest-living shark with a lifespan of 400 years.
- Sharks have the largest brains of any fish.
Threats to Sharks
- Humans kill 100 million sharks a year. That means for every single person killed by a shark, humans kill 25 million sharks.
- Shark finning – Sharks are caught, and their fins cut off while they are still alive. They are then thrown back into the ocean to suffocate and die as they can no longer swim. Their fins are often used to make a tasteless delicacy called shark fin soup.
- Fisheries bycatch – Sharks make up a significant portion of fisheries bycatch and gill net fatalities.
- Overfishing – Lack of regulation and protection of sharks in many countries mean they are massively exploited in the fishing industry.
- Threats to ocean ecosystem, including climate change – Rising sea temperatures and CO2 emissions negatively impact coral reefs and networks which smaller organisms rely on. As a result, this causes an imbalance in the food chain, where prey and shelter is less readily available.
- Habitat and prey loss – An imbalance in the food chain due to prey loss and habitat destruction can hugely impact sharks and other apex predators who rely on these systems to feed and survive.
What can YOU do to help sharks?
- Join the #CleanUpforSharks initiative – wherever you are in the world!
- Only eat sustainable seafood, and ensure you know what species it is.
- Do not consume shark fin soup.
- Choose responsible snorkel and dive operators that treat wild animals with respect.
- Speak up for habitat and wildlife protections.
- Volunteer with the Shark and Marine Research Institute and contribute to research that conserves sharks and preserves our oceans. What’s more, you can get 5% off your adventure through Sea Fans.