I never envisioned myself becoming a spokesperson for sharks and I can remember the exact moment I fell back into it.
Kristin Hettermann is an ocean conservationist and underwater photographer who uses the camera and storytelling as tools to tap into emotions and elicit deeper feelings about her favorite part of planet earth, the ocean.
I was on a dive boat in the Fakarava South Pass, deep in French Polynesia, in a remote atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. French Polynesia is well known as the habitat for roughly 700 sharks. They are well fed and not interested in eating humans.
On this dive boat, I was against the current in a line-up of dozens of sharks. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and feeling. They were all around us, eye to eye on the left and right, all within touching distance. I felt as if I had been welcomed into a group shark meditation. I had never felt so calm and serene – seriously. I was now privy to the fact that the majority of people have a grand misunderstanding around these great specimens of the sea.
Sharks are essential top predators and help to serve as an indicator of a healthy marine ecosystem. Having few or no natural predators themselves, sharks have an important ecological role in keeping prey species in the lower levels of the food web in balance, through predation and fear of predation. Hunting and removing the weak or sick individuals lower down in the food web maintains ecosystem health.
Dr. Mark Bond, distinguished marine fellow at Florida International University, is one of the nation’s top voices on the importance of sharks to a marine ecosystem. He likens sharks to security guards at an event. In this analogy, the sharks make sure that healthy fish are on the reef and through predation, keep their numbers in check.
“As humans harvest fish from an ecosystem, we remove the largest individuals first, which are typically sharks. A complete lack of sharks or only the presence of small or juvenile sharks is an indication that an ecosystem is being overexploited,” Bond says. “Regardless of the ecosystem, removing sharks impacts community structure and threatens the stability and productivity of the system from a biodiversity and fisheries standpoint.”
Bond’s research has found that the impacts of exploitation are unpredictable and can manifest as indirect impacts on different species in a marine system. For example, “the removal of sharks can alter the structure of a seagrass community disrupting the balance, which in turn, negatively effects on lobster and conch fisheries that depend on healthy seagrass ecosystems.”
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