It’s more of an obsession, really. I spend a lot of time in the water: surfing, boogie boarding with my kids, or just cooling off. I think about sharks every time I get in the ocean. If I haven’t had a good long think about them before I get in, then I ponder their existence as soon as I’ve made it out past the break and I’m dangling my feet off the sides of my seal shaped surfboard. If you meet a surfer who says they don’t think about sharks, they are lying.
So, why the love? Well, I love the ocean. I love a balanced ecosystem. I love eating fish and shellfish. Sharks are one of our more exciting apex predators. An apex predator is the one at the top of the food chain that keeps the populations in check all the way down the line. Recent studies on shark populations have found that a drop in shark numbers leads to plummeting shellfish populations. Sharks eat other predatory fish, as well as rays and other animals that feed on shellfish. Once the sharks are gone, the clams, scallops and oyster populations are preyed on heavily by animals that would normally not be so abundant. Unfortunately, sharks are declining precipitously around the world. Sharks are taken intentionally for “finning” (the removal of fins for shark fin soup), and unintentionally as bycatch during the fishing of other species. Marine scientists aren’t exactly sure how things would play out if sharks were gone, but none of the scenarios are good.
In “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold wrote about one of the apex predators of the west. In his days with the Forest Service there was a mass kill policy for wolves. As a result, deer populations exploded. This led to major overgrazing of mountain vegetation. Erosion and river-choking sedimentation are a couple of the problems associated with overgrazing. Leopold wrote: “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” This was a formative part of his land ethic. Simply put “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The release last year of our National Ocean Policy (NOP) was a big step in promoting a saltwater version of this ethic. CLF’s Priscilla Brooks had this to say about the newly created NOP: “For the first time in this country’s history, we will have a national policy that aligns the great promise of our oceans with the great responsibility for managing them in a coordinated, thoughtful and sustainable fashion. New England has led the charge to balance the ever-increasing interest in our state waters … with the need to protect wildlife and critical habitat areas so that our region’s oceans will continue to be productive for generations to come. From Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Maine, we are developing ocean management plans that will serve as guides for better protection and management in federal waters across the nation.”
Ecosystem-based management is at the heart of the NOP. Healthy shark populations are just one facet of a balanced ecosystem. Seal populations have been recovering after near decimation from hunting (and a thriving shark population will keep the seals in check). Some commercial fish populations are now recovering from decades of overfishing. Shellfish, seals, sharks, commercial fish – all are linked. We can’t “manage” one without the effects cascading through the others. Ecosystem-based ocean management plans will consider these connections.
So, even as I picture just what it would look like if a great white shark came rushing from the depths for a neoprene-wrapped snack (me), I still love sharks. I try to be sensible. I avoid the water at dawn and dusk (unless the waves are really good). I stay in shallow water. I get out of the areas where seabirds are working – evidence of major food chain activity. And I’ll take a shark sighting as seriously as anyone. But, since sharks are essential for thriving, productive oceans, they are good to have around. Even if I don’t want them around me.