If you asked a regular citizen on the street ‘Does the UK have sharks?’ I can imagine that the majority would answer ‘Of course not, don’t you mean Cuba or Australia right?’ This is also likely the same picture if you cast the net further afield and asked ‘Does the Mediterranean have sharks’ in any shape or form, again it would probably be no. Great Whites among other large predators were once common in the Mediterranean as well as the sea around the UK. However, don’t worry most have been hunted or persecuted to near extinction as game fish. This common picture of a lack of knowledge of the species found in our waters and the ideology of sharks being this unholy beast is the perspective that both wildlife charities and trusts who try to change.
Many sharks around the UK and European waters are plummeting due to little or no controls on the numbers of prey fish being removed such as Cod, haddock. With quotas only taking into account ‘human’ consumption other species like sharks have less food to survive. This picture is the same for warm water also, when over fishing takes place, the tropical reefs becomes devoid of sharks as they simply can’t survive because of a lack of food. It is likely that most sharks here caught as by catch (EU shark fining ban requires fins intact, therefore meaning they can’t be directly hunted for fins in EU waters). However, outside the protected zone there hunted for their fins across the globe, with the closest example being the Atlantic Ocean. Blue sharks, Oceanic white tips and other wondrous species can easily be caught on long lines for their fins or large trawl nets to replace Tuna and other larger species to increase the fisherman’s profit. The long gestation of sharks means that numbers struggle to bounce back especially when caught as juveniles with no opportunity to breed. There are numerous obstacles for the sharks as they attempt to journey to the shallow waters around the UK. They have to cross ‘a wall of death’ across the continental shelf edge where large swaths of fishing boats wait in earnest to hunt these magnificent predators.
Is it a story that is common knowledge? That our sharks here in our cold British waters and further afield are under attack, probably not. A problem that is most likely associated with poor education in the marine environment. The whole ecosystem becomes affected if sharks numbers decline from the Atlantic Ocean, obviously it will mean less will venture here. However, with changing attitudes to fishing, fining and other factors than pertain to sharks demise, education is the best, and only way to tackle it.
A good example of this shark mystery is a recent story on the news of a school of smooth-hound sharks off the coast of Chichester at an RSPB reserve effectively, swarming in the shallow water. Be it a rare event this small shark is a common species found around our coast, yet it drew such large attention (it was in the daily telegraph). These sharks hunt nothing but small crustaceans and pose no real risk, yet people were in awe. It was definitely a spectacle seeing so many, but many articles and tweets went with the classic stereotype of ‘Sharks invade Selsey, run for your lives’. Whether there is a comic spin is difficult to tell, but it just demonstrates that most people even in journalism have no real idea of what’s beneath the waves and what takes place down there.
Other common species like the small Spotted Cat Sharks, Nurse-hounds, Tope shark, Spiny dogfish, (up to 29 species!!) mostly are relatively small but, vitally important to the ecosystem. The larger species such as the Blue sharks, Short fin mako’s etc. are even more important in keeping our oceans healthy, removing carcasses and disease from the sea, with the added attraction of being beautiful animals. They pose some risk due to their size, but are found a significant distance offshore (hence the reason there fished). Funnily after doing research the most recent attacks or injuries seem to have been on self-important businessmen on fishing trips for larger species that ended up biting them on the boat! This view of the demon fish is problematic for their protection. Why protect something that is potentially dangerous I hear you ask. Well without them we would simply struggle to have any life within our oceans.
One way this is changing is through outreach events like the great egg case hunt (mermaids purse, shown above), which aims to give children and to a lesser extent adults exposure to conservation and to the variety of sharks we have around our shores and to help the Shark trust evaluate numbers and local populations. A recent beach clean event showed this to me even as parents were more amazed than the children! They couldn’t believe how many egg cases were found in one afternoon and what species they were for. It shines the light on population numbers and what it actually means for that species. Talking and explaining why we’re counting is vitally important as it helps the public get informed and with better knowledge becomes better protection.
My point is that the most species are in decline because of us in one way or another. Most people have no idea they even exist and this is the worst thing. If we have no idea what’s there then we simply can’t protect it. This is no way a call to arms, but of an open you’re eyes’ policy to what’s out there. Education is the best way to protect both sharks and our oceans via public events like beach cleans and egg case hunts to convey the diversity and to help protect what we have out there around this little island of ours for now and years to come.
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