After the blockbuster movie Jaws, two silly things happened: kids started calling me Hooper (instead of Cooper) and I was afraid even in the deep end of a swimming pool. Logic can battle fear, but not necessarily win. Even though there are hundreds of species of sharks, and about 20 types that ever harm people, a fin in the water elicits screams. People should be cautious and smart when in waters with Great White sharks, just as they should be when hiking in areas with Grizzly bears or Mountain lions. Just as they should be cautious when driving, when choosing foods, and going down stairways. There are hazards everywhere.
But we shouldn’t let fear, or the aesthetics of beauty determine conservation priorities. People tend to be sympathetic to a relatively few “poster species” for conservation even though most species in need of conservation actions are not generally considered cute, cuddly, or obviously useful. Even though many species of sharks are near extinction, I realize that my own conservation orientation is dampened by fear, despite knowing that people are at far greater risk of death from lightning than sharks. On top of that, sharks are the ones with more reason to be afraid because people kill tens of millions of sharks annually.
For me, only fascination can lessen my fear and spark my conservation concern. As Irish poet James Stephens put it, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”
Fortunately, sharks are fascinating. Sharks have a sixth sense, electroreception, through an organ called the ampullae of Lorenzini. They also have what could be called a seventh sense: their lateral line organ acts like an internal barometer so they can sense tiny changes in pressure from passing objects. With eyes on the sides of their heads, sharks have nearly panoramic views, with blind spots only in front of their snout and directly behind their head. Plus, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The dwarf shark is only about 4 inches long, which makes it cute. Some sharks give birth to live offspring, called pups, which, again, seems pretty cute. Other species lay egg cases with the nickname mermaid’s purses: adorable. Some sharks are social, and forms schools and migrate together. Almost 50 species of sharks have photospheres, which are light-emitting organs.
There are over 1,000 species of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and 24% of are on IUCN red list, meaning they are threatened by extinction. One major challenge to shark conservation is the fear factor that limits public concern. Their biology challenges to their conservation too: they have naturally low population densities and their large home ranges often span the coasts of multiple countries. Another challenge is that, for almost half the species, there is not enough information to assess their extinction risk. The data gap on so many species across the world has been a call to citizen science. Now there are projects that draw on recreational divers, dive guides, photographers, beach goers, and more.
For example, divers and guides monitor shark numbers in Sharkscount. Divers photograph whale sharks in Philippines as part of the Large Marine Vertebrates Project. From photos of whale sharks, researchers can use pattern recognition software (originally developed by NASA) to identify individuals based on their unique spots and stripes. Whale shark photos aggregated in Wild Book for Whale Sharks allow researchers to estimate their abundance. Recreational divers help Redmap in Western Australia to map the abundance and distribution of sharks.
Other citizen scientists stroll the beaches and search for mermaid’s purses. The locations where these egg cases wash up on shore can help identify potential nurseries and assess shark abundance and distribution. For example, in the UK and Italy, citizen scientists find egg cases of Smallspotted Catsharks and Nursehounds.
Irrespective of whether you feel a connection with sharks based on fear or fascination, we need to recognize that they are part of healthy ocean ecosystems.
If you like sharks or if you suffer from galeophobia (an excessive fear of sharks), join us for the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter discussion about citizen science. This week, which is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, we’ll talk about citizen science with sharks. What people do, why they do it, and why this means YOU!
The #CitSciChat will be Wednesday 8 July 2pm EDT, 7pm BST, 8pm SAST, which corresponds to Thursday 9 July 6am NZST.
Sharks live around the world and so do our guest panelists:
Rebecca Jarvis (@Rebecca_Jarvis) a graduate student in New Zealand.
Katie Gledhill (@KatGledhill) with the South African Shark Conservancy and Earthwatch shark project.
David Shiffman (@WhySharks Matter) a graduate student at University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy
Jake Leveson (@SCBMarine & @jacoblevenson), a marine biologist at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Education Officer with the Marine section of the Society of Conservation Biology.
Catalina Pimiento (@pimientoc), a PhD candidate in the U of Florida (defending this Friday!). Her research investigates the ecology of sharks in deep time. Next month she begins a post doc fellowship at the Paläontologisches Institut und Museum in Zurich, Switzerland.