Older than dinosaurs, sharks are the ocean’s apex predator. They sit at the top of the food chain, and help maintain the delicate balance of their marine habitat. There are over 500+ shark species across the globe, varying from 8 inches to 40 feet in length, and weighing up to 11 tons. Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons, and take a relatively long time to grow. They reach sexual maturity at around 20 years old, and usually produce between 2-10 pups. Their slow maturity makes their species susceptible to threats and declining populations.
Sharks have excellent sight and hearing, and can feel electrical currents in the water using their ampullae of Lorenzini, or electroreceptors. This helps them sense muscle movements of prey that could be hiding in the sand, in turbid water, or in darkness. Shark food varies from species to species – some hunt large mammals like seals, while others prefer to feast on fish, and some even eat tiny plankton.
The biggest threat to sharks are humans. Many shark species have been over-fished because their meat and fins are highly valued delicacies, and used in dishes such as shark fin soup. Sharks are also caught as bycatch, or caught in fishing gear set for other types of fish—such as tuna longlines, trawls and gill nets. Many of these sharks die and are discarded. Some fishermen will cut off the fins of bycatch sharks and sell them as supplemental income, throwing their finless bodies overboard. These threats have reduced shark numbers worldwide and placed certain declining species on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service threatened or endangered species list.
Sharks in Massachusetts
Sharks travel to Massachusetts waters each spring, summer, and fall in search of food and mating opportunities. At least 12 shark species visit the Massachusetts coastline from May to November, migrating from overwintering areas off the southeastern U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, and the mid-Atlantic. They arrive to feed in Massachusetts’ nutrient-rich waters and, for some species, to take advantage of potential mating opportunities.
In 2018, Massachusetts saw its first fatal shark attack since 1936. As a result of this tragedy as well as increased shark sightings over the years, state authorities implemented numerous new safety measures, including emergency 911 call boxes on remote beaches and a Stop the Bleed program that was made mandatory for all of the lifeguards on Cape Cod’s public beaches. Despite the fatal attack in 2018, shark attacks are extremely rare, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reporting an average of six deaths worldwide per year.
Avoiding Conflicts with Sharks
Since the debut of Jaws in 1975, sharks have struck fear into the hearts of many. On the list of dangers in the ocean, however, sharks rank near the bottom. If a shark does attack a human, it is a case of mistaken identity, as they are looking for seals or other typical prey. Bees, snakes, lightning, jellyfish, and dogs cause far more human fatalities each year than sharks. The odds of drowning and other beach-related fatalities are 1 in 2 million, while shark attacks are 1 in 11.5 million. While a shark attack is a rare occurrence, you can still keep yourself and others safe by following shark safety tips when at the beach:
- Stay away from basking seals and schools of fish
- Only go into waist-deep water
- Avoid murky water
- Swim or surf in groups
- Limit splashing
Shark Tournaments: Dangerous and Inhumane
Shark tournaments, most common in the northeast, are competitions with hefty prizes for the fisherman who brings in the largest shark. Sharks are brought to shore to be weighed on the dock to determine winners. With weight minimums for a shark to qualify, and a pre-hunt entry fee between $800 and $1000, fishermen will frequently catch and harm multiple sharks until they find one they know will be big enough. The top three shark species caught at these tournaments are; porbeagle, short fin mako, and thresher sharks, all of which are vulnerable or endangered. J-hooks are also still allowed in the majority of shark tournaments. J-hooks cause more pain and stress in the sharks and make it more difficult to return the shark safely to sea if you don’t want to bring it to shore.
Not only are these tournaments dangerous to shark populations and breeding patterns, as well as threatening to larger ecological systems; they also glorify senseless and haphazard killing. The fisherman bring back the bloody carcasses to be hung by hooks on the dock for the public to see. Often, arguments and disputes break out to question the validity of catches or fishing methods causing the crowd to get rowdy. To combat this, the sharks are sometimes sliced open, on the dock for all to see, to check for added weights and the freshness of the organs. The merciless slaughter of thousands of sharks each year in the United States devalues sea life. Sharks are a crucial part of our marine ecosystems and deserve to be treated as such! One suggestion for increasing shark research and allowing for the continuation of tournaments is to practice tag and release fishing. The fisherman can bait the sharks using less harmful circle hooks, tag them and have them weighed or measured, then release them back into the ocean. This will help sustain shark populations and the tags can add to ongoing shark research.
Seal Culls Will Not Reduce the Shark Population
Seals and sharks have inhabited Massachusetts waters for centuries, but their numbers were severely depleted due to fishing and hunting. Both animals are now protected; seals by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and sharks by state and federal regulations. Warming waters and species protections have led to an increase in seals on Massachusetts beaches and sharks traveling in northern waters to hunt them. Both animals have unknown population numbers due to their constant migration and feeding habits, which makes it difficult for external forces to control their population sizes and design conservation methods. Some believe that removing the seals will decrease the amount of sharks we see near our beaches, however, seal culling has been tried in the past in the United States, and it has shown to be ineffective. Seals from Canada continuously supplement seals in the United States, so seals that are removed from Massachusetts beaches will just be replaced by animals from other regions who find the habitat optimal.
Shark Finning and Legislation
Shark “finning” refers to the slicing off of a shark’s fins, often while the shark is still alive. The animal is then thrown back into the ocean where, unable to swim, the shark dies a slow and painful death. The demand for shark fins, used to make shark fin soup, a bowl of which can cost upwards of $100, drives the unsustainable exploitation of sharks worldwide. The practice of shark finning is prohibited by both federal and state law, but the market for fins continues to promote the practice in foreign and international waters.
Although shark finning is illegal in United States’ waters, fins can still be bought and sold in the United States, and we are importing from countries where there are inadequate protections in place for sharks. With the 2014 passage of An Act Relative to Ocean Ecology and Shark Protection, Massachusetts ceased to be a part of the destructive global shark fin trade by banning the possession, trade, and sale of shark fins. Along with Massachusetts, 13 states and 3 U.S. territories have banned the trade of shark fins, but this is not enough to keep the United States out of the global trade. Congressional legislation S.1106/H.R.2811, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2021, would make it illegal to possess, buy, or sell shark fins or any product containing shark fins on the federal level. The entire Massachusetts House congressional delegation has signed on in support of these bills to protect the ocean ecosystems, tourism jobs, and businesses that depend on healthy shark populations.
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