Talking sharks with Steph

We had a chat with Planet Carnivore team member Steph about her experiences with sharks and why they are so important to the health of our ecosystems. 

Read our interview below. 

Leatherback Nest 11July 2016 (6) (1).JPG

Hi Steph, thanks so much for giving us your time, our first question for you is as a born and bred Australian, you’re very lucky to have some iconic wildlife on your doorstep. What is it like to have such an incredible diversity of native wildlife?

We are really lucky in Australia, not just the diversity of wildlife, but also the amount of nature and open space available to us, it’s pretty special. Especially where I am on the South East coast, we have the ocean, mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls all close by, so many different ecosystems within an hours’ drive, which then comes with a whole range of different wildlife. I remember the first time I was overseas working in Costa Rica, I was meeting people from all over the world, and a lot of people said they came to Costa Rica to get away from their hometown or home country for numerous reasons. I just kept thinking, as much as I thought Costa Rica was amazing, I wasn’t trying to get away from Australia at all! I just wanted to see and experience something different.

Specifically now sharks, have you had any memorable shark encounters? If not are there any you would like to experience?

I’ve seen a few sharks, although nothing scary and dramatic! I love the small bottom dwelling sharks like Port Jacksons or Wobbegongs. I’ve only had to leave the water at the beach once or twice after a shark was spotted, but the fishermen and surfers I know obviously see a lot more sharks than I do!

I would love to see tiger sharks underwater because I think they are just so beautiful, and who doesn’t love a hammerhead? But I think the top of my list would be seeing Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef.

Image by Jonas Allert on Unsplash

Sharks around the world face a wealth of conservation issues and public misconceptions, so why should we care if they go extinct?

A lot of shark species are apex predators, meaning they maintain the species that are below them in the food chain. Apex predators limit the population size of their prey, which in turn affects the prey of those animals, and so on. For example, if you take an ecosystem where sharks are the apex predator, they may feed on tuna which feed on scallops which feed on algae. If you remove sharks from the equation, the number of tuna is likely to increase, which will reduce the number of scallops, which will increase the number of algae. Algae could then grow out of proportion, engulfing coral reefs and other vegetation which other species may be reliant on, throwing out the balance of the entire ecosystem.

Sharks are also known to have quite varied diets, so as one food source begins to deplete, they can move on to another, which allows numbers to recover and prey species to persist – a natural conservationist. Sharks can also help clean up the ocean by feasting on dead fish, whales and seals and sea lions.

Without sharks in our ecosystem we would have major issues with our sources of food, water and air. 

Focusing on Australia, what are some of the greatest threats shark populations face? And how do you think they could be addressed?

Currently some of the greatest threats are reported as commercial fishing, habitat change and climate change. 

Shark species are often caught by commercial and recreational fisheries, either targeted or incidentally caught by longlines, setlines, gillnets and other fishing gear. However, a recent report has suggested the number of sharks, specifically threatened shark species, that have been killed by fisheries has decreased over the last two decades. 

Habitat change is also a big threat to sharks. It is a result of human development in catchments and coastal areas, which indirectly impact coastal ecosystems through physical, chemical or biological processes. This is even more challenging because of the lack of knowledge surrounding sharks, their distribution and required habitat. As we further develop without increasing our knowledge of the habitat requirements of sharks, we could unknowingly be modifying critical habitat beyond repair. Again, I think this could be addressed by increasing research – if we are aware of what defines critical habitat for each species, we can conserve those areas and hopefully prevent development.

Climate change poses a risk for us all, but for long-lived shark species with insufficient habitat to move to when their current habitat becomes unsuitable, their physiology and reproduction could be very negatively impacted. The Australian Government needs to act quickly on climate change to try to limit the effects in the future, but we should also be trying to plan ahead and assess the impacts climate change will have on individual species to try to prepare for their future. 

A recent report has shown that one of Australia’s shark species at risk of Extinction the Scalloped Hammerhead  has been reclassified as Critically Endangered but as recently as 2018 in Australia it was listed as conservation dependent meaning it can still be fished, what are your thoughts on how these sorts of attitudes can be changed?

The most important step in my opinion is to increase funding for shark research so we can produce robust data that cannot be ignored. The more we understand about each unique shark species, their population numbers, movement patterns etc., the more we can confidently classify each species and then stipulate rules around each one. With increased knowledge we could also better protect people with awareness and education, and hopefully change peoples’ perceptions of sharks in general. 

What can we do to help change public perceptions of sharks?

I think the media, namely movies, documentaries and articles, need to steer away from the fear factor with sharks. Sharks, along with some other animals such as orcas, are often referred to as “deadly” or “killers”, so in my opinion our whole language around sharks needs to change. We need to steer clear of the fear mongering and dramatics and focus on their skill, beauty and important role in our ecosystem. I think there is a statistic I read about the number of people killed by sharks in Australia is equal to the number of people killed by kangaroos, but the kangaroos aren’t getting the bad reputation. 

Also, as I said above, with more education and awareness out there, hopefully we can begin to change public perception. I’ve been brought up being told we don’t own the ocean, they were here long before us and we need to show them some respect – I think if more people carried that belief we’d be on the right track. 

What’s the future for sharks around the world?

Hopefully bright – I think that people attitudes have been changing over the years from more fear to respect, and also I think people are getting more and more environmentally focussed. With any luck there will be an increase in funding for shark research, and we can get to a point where we better understand them and their behaviour, and hopefully then we can conserve them whilst also protecting people.