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- Sharks: Imperiled, Maligned, Fascinating - EcoWatch ›
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- 4 Amazing Shark Stories to Enjoy This Shark Week - EcoWatch ›
By Jonathan Booth
"We saw two swimming past our canoe the other day as we came to shore!"
"Yes, we saw one over towards the mangroves not so long ago…"
A Unique Site<p>The southwestern Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea is known for its renowned biodiversity, much of which lives nowhere else in the world. But that amazing animal and plant life is often both understudied and under threat.</p><p>This holds true in New Ireland.</p><p>The many islands of New Ireland Province, located in the Bismarck Archipelago, support coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and tidal lagoons — typical habitats for rhino rays and sawfish. Some 77% of New Ireland's human population also lives in the coastal zone, where they're highly reliant on fish and other marine resources for food, livelihoods and traditional practices. Local communities also own most of this coastal zone through customary tenure systems, which may have been in place for centuries.</p><p>Human pressure, including population growth, could threaten potential sawfish and rhino ray populations unless sufficient management is in place — but local cooperation will be key to such action.</p>
Surprising Surveys<p>Over the past year and a half, WCS has conducted interviews in New Ireland's coastal areas. Part of the interviews involved showing images of each sawfish, wedgefish and guitarfish species, allowing respondents to identify what they saw. To date residents from 49 communities reported that they had seen sawfish and rhino rays in their local waters. There were 144 separate sightings reported by 111 respondents, which comprised 23 sawfish, 85 wedgefish and 36 guitarfish and giant guitarfish. Roughly half the respondents stated they had seen sawfish or rhino rays either often or sometimes.</p>
Papua New Guinea occupies the western half of New Guinea and is the largest of the South Pacific Island nations. The uplifted reefs, limestone terrain and adjacent islands that form New Ireland Province comprise the north-easterly region of Papua New Guinea. From January 2019 to March 2020, fisher key informant surveys were conducted in coastal communities in western New Ireland Province to determine whether sawfish and rhino rays were observed within the customary waters of each community. A total of 144 sightings were made, including 85 wedgefish (blue), 36 guitarfish and giant guitarfish (green) and 23 sawfish (red) sightings. Source: WCS.<p>When asked if the animals were targeted by local fishers, more than half the respondents said no: The animals were mostly caught accidentally. Only 9% of the sighted sawfish and rhino rays were reported to have been purposefully caught.</p><p>Respondents also provided information on where, and in what condition, they had seen the animals: 77% were seen alive, 10% at the market and 2% entangled in nets.</p><p>The results suggest that while sawfish and rhino rays are in the region, they are not a key fishery commodity, which is promising news for developing conservation approaches.</p>
Large-tooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) rostrum, beside a ruler, which was harvested by local community fishers from the Tigak Islands that lie to the west of mainland New Ireland. This rostrum measured nearly 30 inches in length. Photo: Jonathan Booth/WCS.
Further Evidence Needed<p>While physical and objective data has been lacking — I'm still waiting to see one of these animals in the water, myself — we have confirmed evidence of two large-tooth sawfish (<em>Pristis pristis</em>) in the region (two sawfish beaks, also known as rostra, have been found in community villages since this study began), and we've received reports of additional sightings.</p><p>WCS also conducted baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVS) in 14 locations in the region in 2019-20, following a 2017 BURVS deployment by <a href="https://globalfinprint.org/" target="_blank">FinPrint</a> in western New Ireland Province.</p><p>Collectively the BRUVS documented 13 species of sharks and rays, including wedgefish (which have also been photographed by local dive operators), but no sawfish.</p>
Wedgefish in New Ireland Province: documented by BRUVS during the FinPrint project (left) and by scuba divers (Dorian Borcherds, Scuba Ventures) (right)<p>But with that success, we're expanding our search. Over the next 12 months, a further 100 BRUVS will be deployed in areas with a sandy seafloor, where wedgefish and giant guitarfish often rest. Because sawfish typically live in estuaries — where water is often murky — BRUVS will not work due to the poor visibility of the water. In these areas gillnets that have been carefully positioned in river outlets by trained local community members will be monitored for sawfish that may be present. If any sawfish are present in the nets, they will be documented and carefully released.</p>
Opportunities for Conservation<p>Despite the vulnerability of sawfish and rhino rays — with five of the ten documented species in Papua New Guinea classified as critically endangered — there are currently no protection laws in place. However, since 2017, WCS has worked with over 100 communities in New Ireland Province to establish the country's largest network of marine protected areas.</p><p>The MPAs have been developed through a community-first approach, with extensive local outreach, engagement and education. In that way WCS has been actively informing local residents about the biology, threats and management opportunities for sawfish and rhino rays. We anticipate that new laws to protect and manage these endangered animals will be incorporated into the management rules for the new MPAs.</p>
Example of education and outreach materials produced by the WCS team. This poster presents management methods that can be used by community residents to help manage sawfish and rhino ray populations in their customary waters.<p>While the mystery as to whether sawfish and rhino ray populations are alive and well in PNG has largely been solved, they are still rare and in need of additional conservation efforts. We hope that this work will help bring awareness and conservation action to these highly threatened species — and make sure they don't become mythical creatures of the past.</p><p><em>The opinions expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of </em>The Revelator<em>, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.</em></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/jonathanbooth/" target="_blank">Jonathan Booth</a> is a marine conservation advisor with the Papua New Guinea Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/shark-quest-papua-new-guinea/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.
Polyproylene fibers found in one of the sampled sharks. Kristian Parton
Spiny dogfish. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons<p>"There appear to be two routes for these particles to end up in the sharks," Parton said. "The first through their food source [such as] crustaceans. Their prey may already contain these fibers, and consequently it's passed to the shark through bioaccumulation up the food chain. The second pathway is direct ingestion from the sediment. As these sharks feed, they'll often suck up sediment into their mouths, some of this is expelled straight away, although some is swallowed, therefore fibers and particles that may have sunk down into the seabed may be directly ingested from the surrounding sediment as these sharks feed."</p><p>Some sharks only contained a few plastic particles, but others contained dozens. The larger the shark, the more plastic was in it, the findings suggested. The highest number of microplastics was found in an individual bull huss, which had 154 polypropylene fibers inside its stomach and intestines.</p><p>"It's perhaps likely this individual shark had swallowed a larger piece of fishing rope/netting and this has broken down during digestive processes within the shark, and also broken down into smaller pieces during our analysis," Parton said.</p>
Lesser-spotted dogfish caught as bycatch. Kristian Parton<p>While this study only examined the stomach and digestive tracts of demersal sharks, Parton says it's possible that plastic would be present in other parts of the sharks' bodies, such as the liver and muscle tissue. However, more research would be needed to prove this.</p><p>At the moment, there is also limited understanding of how microplastic ingestion would impact a shark's health, although microplastics are known to negatively influence feeding behavior, development, reproduction and life span of zooplankton and crustaceans.</p><p>"If we can show that these fibers contain inorganic pollutants attached to them, then that could have real consequences for these shark species at a cellular level, impacting various internal body systems," Parton said.</p>
Parton in the lab. Kristian Parton<p>This new study demonstrates how pervasive and destructive plastic pollution can be in the marine environment, according to Will McCallum, head of oceans for Greenpeace U.K.</p><p>"Our addiction to plastics combined with the lack of mechanisms to protect our oceans is suffocating marine life," McCallum said in a statement. "Sharks sit on top of the marine food web and play a vital role in ocean ecosystems. Yet, they are completely exposed to pollutants and other human impactful activities. We need to stop producing so much plastic and create a network of ocean sanctuaries to give wildlife space to recover. The ocean is not our dump, marine life deserves better than plastic."</p>
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By John R. Platt
Here at The Revelator, we love a good shark story.
The problem is, there aren't all that many good shark stories. According to recent research, sharks and their relatives represent one of the world's most imperiled groups of species. Of the more than 1,250 known species of sharks, skates, rays and chimeras — collectively known as chondrichthyan fishes — at least a quarter are threatened with extinction.
Speaking of Shark Week:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/film-fakery-shark-week-conservation/" target="_blank">Film Fakery: Does Shark Week Harm Conservation Efforts?</a></p>
Big Questions:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/shark-conservation-success/" target="_blank">Are We Ready for Shark Conservation to Succeed?</a></p>
Sharks and Fisheries:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/protect-sharks-overfishing/" target="_blank">How to Protect Sharks From Overfishing</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/florida-anglers-endangered-sharks/" target="_blank">Florida Anglers Are Targeting Endangered Sharks</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/recreational-fishing-environmental-impact/" target="_blank">Fishing for Fun? It Has a Bigger Environmental Impact Than We Thought</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/fins-protected-sharks-traded/" target="_blank">Fins from Protected Shark Species Still Heavily Traded</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/essential-unprotected-fish-habitats/" target="_blank">'Essential' But Unprotected: How the United States Fails Its Most Important Fish Habitats</a></p>
Sharks and the Extinction Crisis:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/lost-shark/" target="_blank">Found But Lost: Newly Discovered Shark May Be Extinct</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/rhino-rays-cites/" target="_blank">A Chance to Save the 'Rhinos of the Sea'</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/one-million-extinctions/" target="_blank">What Losing 1 Million Species Means for the Planet — and Humanity</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/extinction-crisis-keep-feeling-overwhelmed/" target="_blank">The Extinction Crisis is Here. How do We Keep from Feeling Overwhelmed?</a></p>
Broader Ocean and Conservation Issues:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/ocean-biodiversity-mpa/" target="_blank">The Top 10 Ocean Biodiversity Hotspots to Protect</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/protect-species-environmental-dna/" target="_blank">How Do You Protect a Species You Can't See?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/global-ocean-treaty/" target="_blank">Here's Our Best Opportunity to Save the Oceans — and Ourselves</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/coral-reef-replanting/" target="_blank">Coral in Crisis: Can Replanting Efforts Halt Reefs' Death Spiral?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/oceans-challenges/" target="_blank">What Are the Biggest Challenges for Saving the Oceans?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/empowering-communities-save-ocean/" target="_blank">Empowering Communities to Save the Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trump-offshore-oil-wildlife/" target="_blank">Trump's Offshore Oil Plan: Like Nothing the Country Has Ever Seen</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/john/" target="_blank">John R. Platt</a> <em>is the editor of <em>The Revelator</em>. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in <em>Scientific American</em>, <em>Audubon</em>, <em>Motherboard</em>, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/sharks-imperiled/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>.</em></p>
By Gavin Naylor
Sharks elicit outsized fear, even though the risk of a shark bite is infinitesimally small. As a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, I oversee the International Shark Attack File – a global record of reported shark bites that has been maintained continuously since 1958.
A Big, Diverse Family<p>Not all sharks are the same. Only a dozen or so of the roughly 520 shark species pose any risk to people. Even the three species that account for almost all shark bite fatalities – the <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharodon-carcharias/" target="_blank">white shark</a> (<em>Carcharodon carcharias</em>), <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/galeocerdo-cuvier/" target="_blank">tiger shark</a> (<em>Galeocerdo cuvier</em>) and <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharhinus-leucas/" target="_blank">bull shark</a> (<em>Carcharhinus leucas</em>) – are behaviorally and evolutionarily very different from one another.</p><p>The tiger shark and bull shark are genetically as different from each other as a dog is from a rabbit. And both of these species are about as different from a white shark as a dog is from a kangaroo. The evolutionary lineages leading to the two groups split 170 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs and before the origin of birds, and <a href="https://www.ck12.org/book/CK-12-Human-Biology/section/7.2/" target="_blank">110 million years before the origin of primates</a>.</p>
White, tiger and bull sharks are distinct species that diverged genetically tens of millions of years ago. Gavin Naylor / CC BY-ND<p>Yet many people assume all sharks are alike and equally likely to bite humans. Consider the term "shark attack," which is scientifically equivalent to "mammal attack." Nobody would equate dog bites with hamster bites, but this is exactly what we do when it comes to sharks.</p><p>So, when a reporter calls me about a fatality caused by a white shark off Cape Cod and asks my advice for beachgoers in North Carolina, it's essentially like asking, "A man was killed by a dog on Cape Cod. What precautions should people take when dealing with kangaroos in North Carolina?"</p>
Know Your Species<p>Understanding local species' behavior and life habits is one of the best ways to stay safe. For example, almost all shark bites that occur off Cape Cod are by white sharks, which are a large, primarily cold-water species that spend most of their time in isolation feeding on fishes. But they also aggregate near seal colonies that provide a reliable food source at certain times of the year.</p><p>Shark bites in the Carolinas are by warm-water species like bull sharks, tiger sharks and <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharhinus-limbatus/" target="_blank">blacktips</a> (<em>Carcharhinus limbatus</em>). Each species is associated with particular habitats and dietary preferences.</p><p>Blacktips, which we suspect are responsible for most relatively minor bites on humans in the southeastern United States, feed on schooling bait fishes like menhaden. In contrast, bull sharks are equally at home in fresh water and salt water, and are often found near estuaries. Their bites are more severe than those of blacktips, as they are larger, more powerful, bolder and more tenacious. Several fatalities have been ascribed to bull sharks.</p><p>Tiger sharks are also large, and are responsible for a significant fraction of fatalities, particularly off the coast of volcanic islands like Hawaii and Reunion. They are tropical animals that often venture into shallow water frequented by swimmers and surfers.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1cfa1c9590e386ecc9455b4762b87518"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/yDqzGOa-adc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Humans Are Not Targets<p>Sharks do not "hunt" humans. Data from the International Shark Attack File compiled over the past 60 years show a tight association between shark bites and the number of people in the water. In other words, shark bites are a simple function of the probability of encountering a shark.</p><p>This underscores the fact that shark bites are almost always cases of mistaken identity. If sharks actively hunted people, there would be many more bites, since humans make very easy targets when they swim in sharks' natural habitats.</p><p>Local conditions can also affect the risk of an attack. Encounters are more likely when sharks venture closer to shore, into areas where people are swimming. They may do this because they are following bait fishes or seals upon which they prey.</p><p>This means we can use environmental variables such as temperature, tide or weather conditions to better predict movement of bait fish toward the shoreline, which in turn will predict the presence of sharks. Over the next few years, the Florida Program for Shark Research will work with colleagues at other universities to monitor onshore and offshore movements of tagged sharks and their association with environmental variables so that we can improve our understanding of what conditions bring sharks close to shore.</p>
More to Know<p>There still is much to learn about sharks, especially the 500 or so species that have never been implicated in a bite on humans. One example is the tiny <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/one-worlds-rarest-sharks-also-one-most-adorable-325280" target="_blank">deep sea pocket shark</a>, which has a strange pouch behind its pectoral fins.</p><p>Only two specimens of this type of shark have ever been caught – one off the coast of Chile 30 years ago, and another more recently in the Gulf of Mexico. We're not sure about the function of the pouch, but suspect it stores luminous fluid that is released to distract would-be predators – much as its close relative, the <a href="https://sharkdevocean.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/second-ever-pocket-shark-discovered-in-gulf-of-mexico/" target="_blank">tail light shark</a>, releases luminous fluid from a gland on its underside near its vent.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5783b39d0838d6e410344a852ed0dcc3"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UTO5debfmsg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Sharks range in form from the bizarre <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/mitsukurina-owstoni/" target="_blank">goblin shark</a> (<em>Mitsukurina owstoni</em>), most commonly encountered in Japan, to the gentle filter-feeding <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/rhincodon-typus/" target="_blank">whale shark</a> (<em>Rhincodon typus</em>). Although whale sharks are the largest fishes in the world, we have yet to locate their nursery grounds, which are likely teeming with thousands of <a href="https://www.earthtouchnews.com/oceans/sharks/baby-whale-shark-rescued-from-gillnet-in-india-video/" target="_blank">foot-long pups</a>. Some deepwater sharks are primarily known from submersibles, such as the giant <a href="https://twitter.com/gavinnaylor/status/1146144452681113601" target="_blank">sixgill shark</a>, which feeds mainly on carrion but probably also preys on other animals in the deep sea.</p><p>Sharks seem familiar to almost all of us, but we know precious little about them. Our current understanding of their biology barely scratches the surface. The little we do know suggests they are profoundly different from other vertebrate animals. They've had 400 million years of independent evolution to adapt to their environments, and it's reasonable to expect they may be hiding more than a few tricks up their gills.</p>
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Every day, sharks suffer from different threats. Up to 100 million sharks disappear every year, due to destructive fishing by humans and the impact of climate breakdown. One-third of the world's known shark species have been listed as "threatened" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
This whale shark smiles for the camera in the warm water off the coast of the Philippines. Greenpeace<p>2. Sharks come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny lantern sharks, which are about the size of your hand, to giant whale sharks, which are about the same size as a bus.</p>
A former fisherman, now a whale shark guide, hand feeds a whale shark as a tourist takes an underwater photo, Tan-awan, Oslob Cebu. Greenpeace<p>3. Greenland sharks, which live in cold polar waters, hold the record as the oldest known vertebrate animals on the planet. Since they are estimated to live as long as 500 years, there could be some alive today that were born in the Middle Ages. For reference, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the <em>Mona Lisa</em> 500 years ago!</p>
An oceanic whitetip shark in Egypt. Greenpeace<p>4. Mako sharks hold the record for being the most athletic sharks, reaching swimming speeds of over 40 miles per hour! They are also known to have jumped as much as 30 feet out of the water.</p>
A whale shark photographed from above in Cenderawasih Bay National Park, Indonesia. Greenpeace<p>5. The world's biggest sharks also have the widest mouths and eat only tiny ocean plankton, just like the largest whales.</p>
A whale shark in the Philippines. Greenpeace<p>6. Carpet sharks live on the ocean floor and have elaborate patterns to blend in with perfect camouflage. The Tasseled Wobbegong shark takes this to the extreme, with a fringe of feathery 'tassels' around its body.</p>
Lemon shark and other fish underwater at Tuamotus, French Polynesian. Greenpeace<p>8. Hammerhead sharks' elongated heads not only give them super-sense when it comes to electromagnetic detection, but they also have almost 360-degree surround vision.</p>
A Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) near the Azores. Greenpeace<p>9. When sharks are turned upside down, they go into a natural suspended state called tonic immobility.</p>
A shark is seen in the Republic of Palau. Greenpeace<p><span style="background-color: initial;">10. It's dark in the deep sea, so tiny lantern sharks have developed their own way to glow in the dark. It's not yet known if this is to find food, find each other, or help avoid being eaten!</span><br></p>
Grey Reef Sharks in Tahiti. Greenpeace<p>In June 2019, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza went to the North Atlantic to confront the overfishing of sharks. At the same time, Greenpeace International issued a report, <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/22700/sharks-under-attack/" target="_blank">Sharks Under Attack: Overfished and under-protected</a>. It proposed a solution: secure a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the UN.</p>
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Maine may have experienced its first-ever fatal shark attack.
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By JoAnn Adkins
A landmark study by Global FinPrint reveals sharks are absent on many of the world's coral reefs, indicating they are functionally extinct — too rare to fulfill their normal role in the ecosystem.
When Jasmin Graham describes her research on smalltooth sawfish, a critically endangered ray with a unique "saw" at the front of its face, she explains how "nothing else looks like this in the ocean; those species evolved to do something no other shark or ray can do." It resonates, and people understand why diversity matters in sharks, she said. She expanded on this same concept to emphasize how diversity also matters in finding solutions to the challenges that threaten elasmobranchs and in those scientists doing that work.
Jasmin Graham downloads data from an acoustic receiver. Jasmin Graham
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Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.
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By Jake Johnson
In a move that environmentalists warned could further imperil hundreds of endangered species and a protected habitat for the sake of profit, President Donald Trump on Friday signed a proclamation rolling back an Obama-era order and opening nearly 5,000 square miles off the coast of New England to commercial fishing.
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A 26-year-old man was killed by a shark as he was surfing near a state beach in Northern California on Saturday, according to authorities, as The New York Times reported.