Although sharks have a reputation for being scary, aggressive predators, it is mostly undeserved! Instead, sharks play a vital role in keeping their ecosystems healthy and thriving.
Why are sharks important?
Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years—almost a hundred times longer than human beings! As apex predators, sharks control the distribution and population of prey species. If there’s enough for a shark to eat, that’s a great sign their marine neighborhood is healthy.
Sharks also benefit people by attracting curious tourists. In 2001, Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary. Shark-related tourism now pumps $18 million per year into Palau’s economy, a whopping 8% of the nation’s GDP. According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia, a single shark can contribute nearly $2 million to the Palauan economy in a single lifetime! This is a much greater figure than a shark fin, which may fetch up to $500.
Bad News For Sharks
Although many countries are making great strides in protecting sharks and their habitats, the lives and future of these fish are still in danger. Despite the efforts of conservationists and policymakers, humans kill about 100 million sharks per year, often just for their fins.
Our pace of killing sharks is exceeding their ability to maintain their populations. If current practices continue, shark populations will diminish further, threatening entire ecosystems.
Protecting Sharks Through Shark Sanctuaries
Marine protected areas (MPAs) specifically designated as safe havens for sharks are known as shark sanctuaries Typically, the sanctuaries ban commercial shark fishing, and some even ban all types of shark fishing.
Some sanctuaries cover a nation’s entire exclusive economic zones. Countries with limited resources often have difficulty enforcing restrictions in a sanctuary of this size.
As of 2015, the Marshall Islands is home to the largest shark sanctuary in the world. It covers almost 2 million square kilometers (768,547 square miles)—four times the size of California!
Shark sanctuaries stand as an excellent example of how humans can effectively protect sharks, ensuring shark populations can replenish themselves and maintain the health of surrounding ecosystems.
Check out this amazing interactive map to see where all the world’s shark sanctuaries are located.
The Pew Charitable Trusts: Global Shark Conservation
Nat Geo: Sharks
Nat Geo: Marine Protected Areas