During my final two years as an undergraduate student at the University of Miami, I had the honour of working as a shark research intern for the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, an outstanding organization based out of the university that plays a pivotal role in marine science conservation and education. In addition to the joys of getting to work alongside such amazing staff, which was composed of prominent scientists as well as fellow UM students, by far the most memorable of my experiences with RJD include the close interactions I had with our planet’s most ancient and incredible, albeit misunderstood, predators: sharks.
These remarkable creatures have dominated the world’s oceans for over 450 million years and have survived 5 mass extinctions. As apex predators, sharks play a critical role in maintaining balance in marine food webs by regulating the relative abundance of species in lower trophic levels. Thus, their removal can initiate trophic cascades and seriously threaten the viability of marine ecosystems. Sharks are incredibly resilient, inquisitive and, contrary to popular belief, rather peaceful. In fact, one has a far higher chance of dying from the flu or even from a fall than from a shark attack. The tragic reality is that, through activities such as overfishing and excessive hunting for their fins, humans claim an average of up to 73 million shark lives each year. Such staggering figures have decimated shark populations all over the world, causing many species such as the iconic scalloped hammerhead to suffer declines of over 90%. In light of such devastation, it would appear that it is we who are the greatest threat.
Part of my role as an intern with RJD involved teaching the various high school students that we brought along on research trips about marine conservation by showing them how we conduct our field work, what sorts of data we collect and for what purposes, and by finding innovative ways to spread awareness about the plight of our seas and their myriad inhabitants, especially sharks. The goal was to spark interest, which would in turn help to generate concern- no easy feat when it involves one of the world’s most feared creatures. An approach that I found to be particularly effective when interacting with the students was to stress the similarities between sharks and humans. I noted that, like us, sharks live similar life cycles, that they possess a central nervous system, a heart, and veins filled with blood that is composed of the very same elements that exist in our own bodies as well as in every other component of our biosphere- namely, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen. In essence, similarity breeds affiliation, and affiliation is key in dissolving boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
I sometimes wonder precisely how many perceptions of sharks and the natural world more generally I helped influence through this technique. I do know that, on more than one occasion, students’ attitudes towards a particular shark we were interacting with began to shift once I showed them that they were not monsters but in fact our co-evolutionary kin who form but one strand among millions of interconnected strands in the grand web of life. They are our family, they have been around for far longer than us, and thus they deserve our unwavering respect. Let us cherish them and do what we can to preserve them.
Content by Heather Alberro
Check Out the Blog Posts that I Wrote for the RJD Website:
- Phytoplankton: Small Organisms with a Massive Impact
- Investigating the Intellectual and Emotional Lives of Cetaceans