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Why We Need Sharks, Maybe Even More Than Trees

t’s likely that the word shark makes you think of one of the countless horror films released since 1975’s classic thriller Jaws. But movies and fear mongering have given us a skewed impression of both the danger sharks pose and their importance to ecosystems, the ocean, and the planet in general.

Simply put: Sharks are essential. These dinosaurs of the sea have been around for 450 million years for a reason. The Earth—and all living things on it—need sharks to survive. And one of the best ways to protect them is to get to know them (like, really know them). Here is everything you need to know about sharks.

Here are more reasons why sharks matter—to the ocean, and to us.

Sharks keep the food web in check. 

Many shark species are “apex predators,” meaning they reside at the top of the food web. These sharks keep populations of their prey in check, weeding out the weak and sick animals to keep the overall population healthy. Their disappearance can set off a chain reaction throughout the ocean — and even impact people on shore.

Sharks are a keystone species, which means they are essential for ecosystem health. | Stephen Frinck/Getty

Sharks keep carbon out of the atmosphere

Since sharks support healthy seagrass meadows by preventing overgrazing, sharks play an important role in the carbon cycle. Seagrasses absorb vast amounts of carbon and store it in the plants themselves and in the sediment, preventing greenhouse gases from warming the atmosphere.

Sharks store a lot of carbon in their own bodies, too—a study showed that by depleting populations of large animals in the ocean, such as whales and sharks, we have reduced the ocean’s capacity to store carbon by millions of tons. And that means more carbon in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.

Sharks could hold cures for diseases. 

It has puzzled researchers for years: Why don’t sharks get sick as often as other species? Shark tissue appears to have anticoagulant and antibacterial properties. Scientists are studying it in hopes of finding treatments for a number of medical conditions, including viruses and cystic fibrosis . 

Copying sharks could even lead to significant global health impacts. Each year, more than 2 million hospital patients in the U.S. suffer from healthcare-acquired infections due to unsanitary conditions. Looking to shark skin’s unique antimicrobial properties, researchers were able to create an antibacterial surface-coating called Sharklet AF. This surface technology can ward off a range of infectious bacteria and help stop the proliferation of superbugs in hospitals. 

Sharks inspire smart design. 

People have been practicing biomimicry — imitating nature’s designs to solve human problems — for many years. However, recent advances in technology have made it possible to go even further in pursuit of efficient design. Great white sharks can swim at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, mainly because of small scales on their skin called “denticles ” that decrease drag and turbulence. Envious professional swimmers and innovative scientists mimicked the design of these denticles to develop a shark-inspired swimsuit, proven to make swimmers sleeker and less resistant in the water.

Sharks are hunted for their fins, in particular, which are used in medicine and cooking. | Gregory Sweeney/Getty

Sharks boost local economies.

Over the last several decades, public fascination with sharks has developed into a thriving ecotourism industry in places such as the Bahamas, South Africa and the Galápagos Islands.

These activities support local businesses (boat rental and diving companies, for example) and provide more than 10,000 jobs in 29 countries. Several studies have indicated that in these places, sharks are worth much more alive than dead.

In addition to these benefits for people, it’s likely that sharks fulfill other roles in their habitats that we have yet to understand or appreciate.

Species are sometimes called the “building blocks of ecosystems,” yet humans continue to remove these blocks without fully understanding the consequences. Up to 100 million sharks are killed every year, a figure that hasn’t improved since 2013. 

Think of the world’s biodiversity as a giant game of Jenga: if you keep removing blocks, eventually the whole thing will come tumbling down.

What can I do to help sharks?

  • Avoid unsustainable shark products. Many populations have DECLINED BY OVER 90% from overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. For some shark species, keeping a single individual safe from being fished may be worth over $1 million annually to tourism.
  • Be smart about what seafood you eat. Choose sustainably sourced seafood that is certified or marked as such. Choosing reliable and sustainable fisheries will promote better practices from fisheries. Use your power as the consumer for good.
  • Keep the shores clean. Avoid single-use plastics and harmful chemicals that might end up in our oceans. Your choices can help to affect our oceans for the better rather than for the worse.
  • Share your knowledge far and wide. Spread the things you learn with loved-ones and friends, share your knowledge online and make the small steps you can to lead by example to those who will listen.

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