Ah, that time of year has come again. Everyone’s favourite (according to the ratings) show to watch on the Discovery Channel. The popularity of this venerable week named after the most infamous of apex predators had strangely humble beginnings on the Discovery Channel; but nonetheless evolved into a behemoth of a show itself.
In 1987, the Discovery Channel ran a week long special on an apex predator that has become feared, popularised, and studied by the general public. Shark Week has since become an annual entertainment event of excitement, education, and general awareness of the many species of sharks and their role on our planet. Which is actually a very important subject; sharks’ role in our planet’s oceans, and more importantly the future of that role.
Sharks as a group of species have been swimming in our planet’s oceans for an estimated 420 million years. Modern sharks are an estimated 470 separate species living in our planet’s oceans, and are as physically diverse today as they were millions of years ago. Sharks are believed to have first been on our planet 420 million years ago, and were very different from the modern evolution of sharks today. The modern sharks we know today began an evolution 100 million years ago, and evolved into the apex predators that keep our oceans’ ecosystems in balance. These sharks evolved incredibly diverse, and a few have even been able to swim and exist normally in both salt and freshwater environments. This is an astounding accomplishment for over 400 million years, and proves just how resilient and necessary to the ocean’s ecosystems the shark really is. Almost 28 million years ago a massive underwater predator roamed our oceans. Scientists have found fossils that suggest Megalodon was some 16 metres (52 ft.), and although there is scientific dispute on species type and fossils remains, scientists do agree that Megalodon swam, survived, hunted, and ruled our seas for nearly 27 million years. Megalodon has been described by scientists as a beefier, larger version of a great white shark, and could very possibly be the great white’s ancient cousin.
Although the modern shark is an apex predator, it is in grave danger of becoming extinct due to human related fishing and ocean usage. There are many different types of seafood in the world today; and one of the most popular are soups made from the animals themselves. Shark fin soup is among the most popular in southeast Asia, and the United States. Shark itself is also very popular, and fishermen around the world have produced serious financial return through the practice of finning. Finning is a very economical method of fishing that has boosted whole economies, and brought incredible net gains for both the fishermen and the distributors. Simply put, once the animal is caught, the fins are sliced off for later use in cooking. Years ago, the sharks were brought back with the fins still on, and then the entire animal was harvested appropriately. But today, new ground in economically harvesting these sharks has shown that the fin is more financially rewarding than the shark, so the shark is left in the water after it is finned.
38 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, and that may be a conservative estimate. Some sharks are more valuable than others. Indeed some are worth over $10,000 alone for the fins. The soup can cost anywhere from $15 a bowl to $175 a bowl (even more in the United States where it is illegal). Sharks are magnificent creatures, bringing balance to a very fragile ecosystem under the sea. While most people know what a shark is, few, per ca-pita, are able to identify the vastly different species of sharks that roam our oceans. Due to human activity on our oceans, the sharks are unable to reproduce at a level that is faster than the rate they are dying; either through fishing, habitat change, or environmental/ecological industrial accidents of various kinds.
During Shark Week I will be posting several articles on different species of shark, sharks as a whole (reproductive, brooding, behaviour, and ecology), as well as steps we as divers can take to bring awareness to our fellow man.