The Diver’s Role in Shark Awareness
By: Cristina Zenato
What would happen if all the sharks in the world disappeared?
It’s a question that is becoming more present during some of my interviews or presentations. I do not have the complete answer, but I can think of a few scenarios, and I do not want to be present should this occur.
Throughout our presence on this planet, we have interacted with nature and creatures, still, never as in the last 100 years since the industrial revolution humanity has caused so much extinction among animals, big or small.
We have obliterated entire eco-systems, and we are, for lack of better words, somewhat “getting away with it.”
I believe that should most of the sharks in the world disappear, that would no longer be the case.
Sharks are perhaps one of the most important and valuable creatures in the oceans; our dependence on them covers all aspects of our lives, from economical to bare survival. I will not spend time explaining what an extraordinary animal nature has created. I will spend my time voicing my concern over their fast decline, the never-ending greed, and the cruelty of humans, which is taking these animals at a rapid rate.
It is essential to realize that the oceans belong to the sharks and other creatures living in them, and we are the guests coming from our terrestrial world. They are not invading our space; they live there.
Appreciating the word Sharks
When we say sharks, it is like saying birds. Not all birds can fly or nest in a tree; not all of them are black or can sing beautifully. There are over 500 species of sharks in almost all the oceans of this water planet, the smallest one fits in the palm of an average adult hand, and the biggest one is fifty feet long and loves caviar (eats plankton). There are all sizes, shapes, and kinds of diets. It’s time we start to learn about them, where they are, what they do for a living, how they reproduce and eat when it’s safe to be in the water with them, and those rare occasions when the water belongs to them. Once we start learning and understanding the different species and locations, we will realize that the oceans are a very safe place to visit.
Learning about the threats to sharks
With the ever-expanding population, conquering, and development of vast coastal areas, we have accessed and removed some vital locations for sharks to reproduce. Where once there were mangrove creeks, now there are harbors and resorts; where there were wild river estuaries, containers, and passenger ports.
We are taking their food away through the never-ending demand for fish, causing depletion in the supply. Modern fishing vessels sit at sea for weeks, fishing and processing food right on the spot, discarding vast quantities of fish deemed not financially viable for the ship to keep. The old traditional ways of fishing that allowed fishers to sell everything captured have been substituted by a wasteful practice causing an uncalculated amount of bycatch.
Bycatch is the unwanted fish and other marine creatures trapped by commercial nets, fishing for a different species, and thrown back into the sea dead. This practice is fueled by our refined palates and demands on the market to provide the required quantity of specific fish species.
Let’s add pollution of the sea by our constant discharges in rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, the rising mercury levels, insane use of plastic in every detail of our lives, frequent oil spills, noise, and traffic from ships and rigs, and even tourism activity. In that case, we can easily see how shark numbers would quickly suffer from our presence and interference.
Sharks contend with sport and trophy fishing, designed to remove the chain’s most significant and vital animals, as they hunt the biggest and strongest, critical in the reproduction of their species.
How can we help?
Conservation comes in different ways, from direct action to science. It can generate through art, photography, and writing. I always recommend thinking globally and acting locally.
We can start working in our community to change laws affecting sharks as direct catch or bycatch. We can create educational and outreach programs for the younger generations. We can talk to restaurants and food stores about changing the fish they serve based on safe seafood guidelines (https://www.seafoodwatch.org) and change how we consume. No matter where we live, we should learn to use less plastic and find alternative products to reduce our carbon footprint. With every small action, our vision becomes more potent, and we become actors in our future.
What can divers additionally do?
Divers are the most direct ambassadors for sharks; they are the connection between beneath the waves and the land. Their experiences, stories of diving with sharks, and images can help dispel myths and incorrect perceptions and share sharks’ true nature. As divers, they can assist with citizen science worldwide, from counting sharks to identifying them through photography and videography. Furthermore, they can help with coral and mangrove restoration, two habitats vitally interconnected with sharks.
Ultimately divers are the best immediate solution to shark fishing, through shark diving. As much as many find shark diving controversial and not the topic of this blog, I believe it is a valuable tool to promote shark conservation. Some of the smallest island nations in the world have already understood and embraced the concept. The Bahamas, Palau, and Fiji are some of the first, and best examples of how giving value to a live shark through shark tourism have allowed them to protect sharks completely. It is one of the most direct contributions divers can make to shark conservation when done correctly and ensuring the income benefits the country and its populations.
As divers, we must carefully consider the operators we choose for the different environments and shark species we decide to dive with.
There are three core factors I always look at when evaluating an operator:
The guests’ safety participating in the dive and the safety of those coming after the dives, the staff’s safety managing the dive, and the animals’ safety involved in the encounter.
These considerations are related to an operator acting within the country’s legal aspects and the local laws regarding shark diving. I direct my choice elsewhere when the operator does not meet one of these three fundamental principles.
An operator with sharks’ safety in mind will provide a balanced educational briefing, explaining the possible risks and the positive outcome of these encounters. One of the best evaluation methods is analyzing the sharks’ interactions. We can search this through social media posts, the operator’s posts, and reading some of the reviews of other divers. Interactions should highlight these creatures’ beauty and not create unnecessary stress and agitation during the dive. If an operator does not feel right, it’s best to avoid the trip and find a better-suited location and venture.
When shark dives are well managed and successful, the results are positive for all involved, including the sharks.