Sharks: Predators in Peril

Ancient. Powerful. Toothy. Threatened. Sharks have been the inspiration for books, movies and nightmares since humans took to the seas…but they’re way more important than we ever gave them credit. Now that we know, can we save them before it’s too late?

The world's biggest fish species is

The Tequesta Indians of South Florida hunted sharks

The following is a delicacy made from sharks in some parts of the world:

Baby bull sharks swim upriver into the Everglades

Click here to download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide for the Southeastern United States.

Come up with a list of the most common seafood items you might find in a restaurant in Miami (or wherever you live). These might include mahi-mahi, red grouper, or even lionfish, for example.

Now, compare the Seafood Watch guide with the list you’ve come up with, and make a note next to each item on your list. Is it a “best choice,” a “good alternative,” or “something to avoid?”

Sharks: Predators in Peril

Ancient. Powerful. Toothy….Threatened. Over the course of history, mankind has had a complex relationship with Sharks. They’ve been mythologized…even demonized by popular culture and thanks to books and movies like “Jaws,” they’ve gotten a bad rap.

But humans have relied on sharks for thousands of years. For the Tequesta Indians of Miami’s Coastal regions, shark meat was an important food source. They hunted them from canoes with harpoons. But back then the Tequesta were few, sharks were plentiful, and nothing was wasted Fast forward to today…

The world’s sharks are being decimated. Humans have better technology, there are more of us, and apparently the word “waste” is no longer a bad word. The biggest threat facing sharks today is the demand for a small but critical part of the shark’s body: its fins. In certain parts of Asia, Sharkfin soup is a delicacy, and some people pay big bucks for a bowl of the stuff. As a result, up to 73 million sharks were killed in 2012 to satisfy this demand. Usually the shark is hauled in, only to have its fins sliced off and its immobilized body tossed back into the sea. Disgusting and shameful, if you ask me.

Recently, however, scientists have made discoveries that might make sharkfin consumers re-think their culinary habits. This little hammerhead probably doesn’t realize it’s making an important scientific contribution. Marine biologists from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science are finding high levels of BMAA, a neurotoxin linked to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. To get the data needed, the sharks have to come aboard where tissue samples are collected, and identification tags are attached to the dorsal fins. The day I tagged along, they caught and sampled several species, including this nice-sized nurse shark.

It’s hard work, as you can imagine, and researchers are careful to keep their patients well hydrated. The samples that are collected will go a long way, helping to make the case that for humans, shark meat is more toxic than it is tasty. In a matter of minutes, this guy is swimming free again.

Over at FIU, Dr. Mike Hiethaus and his team are just as crazy about sharks. Dr. Hiethaus’ research takes him halfway around the world. But most of his work is closer to home, in the coastal areas of the Everglades. They’re studying the top predators of the Everglades. This means alligators and sharks. Phil Matich does a lot of the fieldwork, and sharks are his specialty.

They’ve discovered some fascinating things about how these fish fit into the ecosystem:

I’m constantly looking to capture some great footage of our world’s species, and filming sharks in their environment is always an adventure I can’t pass up. Amazingly the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, is a gentle, harmless beast. Swimming beside these enormous sharks off the coast of Mexico was an unforgettable privilege. Being in the middle of a tornado of Caribbean reef shark in the Bahamas was a bit more hair-raising. But the ocean is their world. We’re just visitors here. Sure some can be unpredictable, but all animals should be treated with caution and respect. In 2012, 5 people in Florida were killed by lightning, none by sharks. And it turns out that sharks are way more important than we ever realized.

It’s time for a new perspective. Sharks are the great protectors of our oceans. Just ask Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the book “Jaws,” which the movie was based on. Now he’s an advocate for saving sharks. It’s clear that sharks are important predators in peril.

Coming soon


The Florida Scrub Jay

Gopher Tortoise: Ecosystem Engineer