I can’t tell you how many times a week I am asked if there are sharks in the estuary, and it’s always a fun question to answer. I could say no to help them feel more comfortable, but I would rather have a silly answer such as “You should be more scared if I told you I stopped seeing sharks”. That is an answer that people don’t expect to hear which usually causes a giggle because they think I am kidding. But what it actually does is help them be less scared and open the door for some shark facts that give people a little better understanding of these magnificent creatures. With more understanding comes less fear and more respect. The reality is humans can’t survive without sharks, and you are more likely to get struck by lightning than bit by a shark.
Sharks are one of my favorite creatures, and I consider myself very lucky to swim in their home daily. I am always very excited when I get to encounter a shark while out on an adventure, how could you not be? Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years, which means they have been around longer than trees and dinosaurs. There has been 5 mass extinctions that wiped out more than 80% of the planet’s megafauna, the last one was 65 million years ago and wiped out 95% of species to include the dinosaurs. Yes, you read that correctly, sharks are older than trees, and outlived the dinosaurs! Sharks are an apex predator which means they are at the top of the marine food chain and are responsible for maintaining the balance of all marine species and ecosystems. They have quite literally protected our oceans, reefs and planet for millions of years. They are not the vicious attack beasts that they have been made out to be by the human population. We are not their prey and they do not hunt humans. Thousands of people enter the ocean every day, Florida during this time of year is the perfect example of that. Our beaches are packed every day and boats fill the waterways, as do the sharks, especially since they love Tarpon and it's Tarpon season. So, while humans flood to the shark’s home scared to death of them, only 6 humans on average die a year worldwide from shark attacks. That’s a pretty slim number, more people get killed by jellyfish and coconuts. It seems rather silly when we look at the reality of shark attacks and our fear of them, especially considering humans are the biggest predators to these vital beings.
Humans kill more than 100 million sharks annually, causing the global population of sharks to decrease by 90%. Large commercial fishing operations are one of the main driving factors in the loss of our shark population. Sharks are often part of the bycatch. ‘Bycatch refers to “discarded catch of marine species and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing vessels and gear. "These unintentionally caught animals often suffer injuries or die.” (NOAA) Also Large Commercial fishing operations tend to exhaust shark’s primary food source, and if food sources are scarce, sharks go hungry and eventually die. Shark fin soup also has a massive impact on our shark population. Shark fin soup has been a delicacy and symbol of wealth and power in the Asian culture for thousands of years going all the way back to the Sung dynasty. It is also said to have medicinal benefits, but the method of how the shark fins is fished is cruel and unsustainable. The method involves targeting sharks, collecting them and amputating them from their fins then throwing them back in the ocean alive. Without fins, the shark can not swim and slowly dies. Harmful algae blooms fueled by chemical and nutrient pollution kill millions of fish, create dead zones, destroying the ecosystem and their habitat, and obviously that is another way humans are impacting the shark population.
It seems very clear to me that sharks should fear humans far more than we fear them, and they do. They are typically long gone before you even notice they were anywhere near you, and why I get so excited when I am lucky enough to encounter one. The species I see most frequently in the Gasparilla Sound are Bonnetheads, Bull, Black Tip and Lemon sharks. I would love to continue to see them on my adventures, so it is important to me to try to make daily choices that help protect them.
A few of the most important things we can do is be mindful consumers. Buy locally sourced fish from captains or go out an learn to fish. There is nothing more rewarding than learning to catch and cook your own fish, even better if you grow your own veggies. Which is the next most important thing you can do to protect sharks and our oceans. Grow your own food, support local regenerative farms as much as you can, get rid of your monoculture lawn and create a biodiverse one. Returning biodiversity and reducing the amount of chemicals used in our food cultivation and lawn practices is the number one thing we can do to improve water quality and therefor returning balance to harmful algae blooms such as red tide and cyanobacteria.
Let’s protect the puppies of the sea, for you and me and the life of all. Oh, why do I call them the puppies of the sea? Because when you roll them over and pet their bellies they go into a trace and they like nose pets. Obviously don’t try this at home but have some fun and watch some videos of the sea puppies getting some love.
Until the next adventure, Stay Salty! Also get a message to the wind gods, we need a break!