There’s no doubt that sharks have an image problem. And it’s probably fair to say that a single blockbuster film did much of the damage. The runaway success of Jaws led to these fish – all 500 or so species – being collectively typecast as terrifying and dangerous denizens of the deep, to be feared and destroyed. And we humans are playing our assigned role perfectly, our prejudices confirmed by unhelpful sensationalist media headlines.
But what we forget, when we stare into those rows of teeth, are the critical relationships between sharks and their less-toothy marine neighbours. We forget the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution that have intertwined the fate of all marine life into one very complex, very sensitive, web.
As apex predators, sharks are responsible for orchestrating the dynamics of much of the marine life that sits lower in the food web. If sharks disappear, the finely tuned oceanic network could plunge into chaos – and that’s exactly what is happening today.
Hunting for meat and fins, accidental by-catch and habitat loss are pushing sharks further towards the brink of extinction, and this has serious implications not only for the sharks themselves, but also for the wider marine environment, including the people who depend on it. Devastatingly, the worst impacts are being felt in those areas that have already seen declines in biodiversity due to other pressures.