Time to rebrand
Unless you’re a surfer, diver, or live on the ocean, your personal experience with sharks is probably pretty limited. And hey, even if you’re an avid surfer, or island resident, chances are you’ve never seen a shark with your own eyes. And unless you’re really into sharks or marine biology your own knowledge of sharks is also probably pretty limited.
That was me before I started diving. The thought of a “SHARK!” always kicked up images of giant Great Whites jumping out of the water to devour innocent surfers. I knew they were “the apex predator” but I didn’t really consider what that meant for the bigger picture or their impact on ocean life.
These generic perceptions of sharks don’t do any benefit to shark species, or our oceans.
If you follow surfing, or just happen to live on an island like Oahu or Reunion – or Oz – you may have heard about various shark attacks on surfers. Not only about the attacks but the posthumous call for a cull, which basically amounts to killing tons of sharks until the aggression stops.
Not only have shark culls proven ineffective, they also have a negative impact on the food chain.
A Trophic Cascade – also needed
In the 1920’s, the wolves of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. were more or less killed off. This was due to government “predator control programs,” basically allowing the hunt of various animals deemed a threat. It also changed the environment – significantly.
Without the wolf, Elk populations boomed, having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, specifically by decimating woody species by over-grazing, and with that, eroding the land and habitats of smaller animals. Coyotes also got a leg up and killed more than their fair share of Antelope. Ironically, instead of reintroducing the wolf, they decided to start killing off the Elk. Makes total sense, right? Wrong.
Finally, at the tail end of the century in 1995, conservationists and environmentalists ran a successful campaign to reintroduce the wolf back to the ecosystem. And guess what? The ecosystem thrived.
There are around 440 known species of sharks in our oceans. All with varying degrees of feeding habits and social behaviours. And some of the most common sharks are not the big scary monsters you may first imagine. They all are, however, like the Yellowstone wolf. Necessary to maintain a healthy food chain and ecosystem by keeping species below them in check, therefore protecting smaller species and the environment from decimation.
Reef sharks are a very common type of shark – akin to its name – found around the reef as that is its place to hunt. If you ever see a shark when you’re diving, it will most likely be a Reef shark. They are homebodies, not traveling very far from where they are born. Meaning, by instinct they rely on the constant availability of a rejuvenating food chain for their survival.
Reef Sharks used to be bountiful in the Indonesia archipelago, and other neighboring seas, but sharks of all species have been decimated by the fishing industry and to serve demand for shark fin soup. I like to think about shark fin soup as taking a big beautiful redwood tree from the Sequoia National Forest in California, making an elevator button out of it, and burning the rest.
Much like the wolves of Yellowstone, the reef sharks of Indonesia could assist in the rejuvenation of these waters. But it will take protection, enforcement, and a change in our own behaviour to drive it.
In the last 7 years of his time heading up Bali Sharks and releasing sharks into Gili Trawangan and Nusa Penida, Paul Friese has begun to see regrowth of corals and the return of smaller fish to the region.
Stories like the Mistool Marine Reserve in Raja Ampat give us hope for the future of the ocean, but it requires respect for and faith in the food chain and its 'apex predator' to work its magic.