GUEST COLUMN: How saving our sharks could prevent pandemics
By Alyssa Rodriguez, Education Specialist, Oklahoma Aquarium
What’s older than trees and has two penises? Well if you’ve seen this year’s promotions for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming, then you already know the answer. As a biologist, I feel compelled to clarify that shark’s reproductive anatomy isn’t entirely analogous to that of mammals’ and what Discovery is referring to is actually a functionally similar pair of body parts called claspers. While cashing in on shock-value at the cost of precise language may captivate a wider audience, this kind of messaging tends to omit important parts of the narrative and create larger problems for sharks.
The portrayal of sharks in our popular culture has led us to believe they’re man-eating monsters that are better off dead. Movies like Jaws (unintentionally) create misconceptions that sharks are motivated to kill humans specifically and these ideas are often reinforced by real-life news reports of shark attacks. Whenever shark attacks take place, we hear about them—often times with a sensational spin. For example, just two weeks ago, The New York Post wrote an article entitled “Shark that killed NYC woman confirmed as great white – and it’s still out there.” The unnecessary addendum that the shark is “still out there” living in its native habitat is only a single example of the how sharks’ reputations are mischaracterized. While they are powerful and potentially dangerous predators, they are not out to get us. And when we believe that they are, it is easier to ignore the half of the story that does not get told: the number of sharks killed by humans each year.
Scientists estimate that people kill around 100 million sharks every year. A number that large is hard for people to conceptualize as it is but coupled with the reputation that a dead shark is the best shark, it is a statistic that poses a serious threat to our oceans’ health. The main reason humans are killing so many sharks is to acquire their fins for use in shark fin soup. Although it is primarily consumed in China, shark finning is a global problem because the selling fins for the shark fin trade is so lucrative. A single bowl of shark fin soup can cost upwards of US$250, yet it costs the shark its life.
So why, in the middle of a landlocked state, amidst a pandemic, of all times, is it worth focusing our attention on sharks? As predators, and often apex predators, sharks play an extremely important role in maintaining our oceans’ health. Not only do they maintain equilibrium in population sizes for every level below them in the food chain, but they are also preventing the spread of disease. When a shark hunts its prey, it isn’t ever going to work harder than it needs to. So the easiest meal to snag is going to be the slowest swimming fish in the school, and who is most likely to swim slower than the rest of the bunch? A sick or injured fish. By removing sick fish from the rest of the population, sharks prevent the spread of disease in their prey.
When 40% of the world’s protein sources come from seafood, it is vital that we prevent the spread of illness in our oceans. The idea that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are all inextricably interdependent is an idea known as One Health. This interdisciplinary approach is an especially relevant way to view our world, especially as we are currently facing a growing pandemic that originated in a nonhuman animal.
By challenging the way we have been taught to view sharks, we can begin to adopt the One Health model and tackle the problems shared by our Earth, its people, and its animals. One way you can learn to appreciate sharks more is by visiting the world’s largest collection of bull sharks located in Jenks, at the Oklahoma Aquarium.