Protecting the Ocean’s Top Predators

Sharks are crucial to our ecosystems—and we need to stop hurting them and start recognizing them as the allies they are

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Scuba diving with caribbean reef sharks

Sharks are enigmatic and dexterous creatures that have lived for nearly 450 million years, survived five mass extinctions, and keep the ocean’s biodiversity balanced. Without them, our underwater ecosystems would be in jeopardy as well as food security for nations around the world. 

But as tough as they are—and as crucial as they are to keeping our planet in balance—sharks are in danger. Every year, millions are wiped out because of overfishing, water pollution, loss of habitat, and other man-made threats. And today, some species are now hovering on the brink of extinction. 

Here, we look at three main threats to these apex predators—and what we can do to protect them.

Bull shark swims along white sand at the bottom of the ocean.
Bull shark swims along white sand at the bottom of the ocean.

Sport Fishing

Overfishing, or removing a marine species at a rate too excessive for it to replace itself, is not a new phenomenon. One of the earliest examples occurred in the last century when nearly three million cetaceans were wiped out by whaling fleets. 

Team members from FAU’s Elasmobranch Research Lab tag a blacktip shark to gather data. Photo by Stephen Kajiura
Team members from FAU’s Elasmobranch Research Lab tag a blacktip shark to gather data. Photo by Stephen Kajiura

In the 1970s, as other species became drastically depleted, shark fishing went on the rise. Since then, it is estimated that 71 percent of oceanic shark populations have taken a nosedive and one-third of all sharks are now at risk of extinction, according to a new study published in Nature that re-assesses the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species’ shark extinction risk status. A new global analysis also found that the number of threatened species has doubled since the first study in 2014, with endangered and critically endangered species more than tripling. 

Today, 100 million sharks are killed annually from overfishing. That is a very alarming number when you consider the fact that sharks grow slowly and take years to reproduce.  

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the commercial and recreational shark fisheries in state waters, has implemented strict fishing regulations to boost the biomass levels of shark populations. Those regulations include bag and size
limitations on harvestable sharks, gear requirements, and a prohibited species list. Anyone who wants to fish
from shore or any structure attached to the shore (like a bridge), must first pass an online course (myfwc.com/sharkcourse). Once completed, they can download the complimentary Shore-Based Shark Fishing Permit, which must be renewed annually. 

Importing/exporting shark fins through Florida ports is illegal
Importing/exporting shark fins through Florida ports is illegal.

Fin Fury

Each year, approximately 73 million sharks are killed in the name of finning for profit, the cruel and exploitive practice of slicing fins off live sharks before tossing the creatures back into the sea, where they suffocate or get eaten by other predators. Most of these fins are sent off to Asia, where shark fin soup is prized as a symbol of prosperity.  

In October 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Kristin Jacobs Ocean Conservation Act to combat this problem. Named after its original sponsor, Florida Representative Kristin Jacobs, who passed away from cancer earlier that year, the bill prohibits the import, export, and sale of shark fins in Florida. Fins can only be commercially traded if the shark’s head, tail, and fins are attached when processed or landed.  

The Fin Alliance, a Palm Beach–based ocean conservation organization, was one of the bill’s top supporters. Cofounder Cassandra Scott—along with Stefanie Brendl of Shark Allies, a California-based conservancy that helped get Hawaii’s fin trade law passed—advocated for the bill, speaking at local businesses and schools. 

Hannah Medd. Photo by Ivan Rutzen
Hannah Medd. Photo by Ivan Rutzen

On a Mission

One woman’s lifelong fascination with sharks and what she’s doing to help them

Hannah Medd is hooked on sharks. Growing up, the Maryland native and self-described water baby spent winters with her family in Florida, frolicking in the ocean. She was 10 years old when she read somewhere that the local beach was a hot spot for sharks. 

“I asked my mother why she’d let me swim in such dangerous waters,” Medd recalls. “She laughed and asked me when the last time was I’d seen a shark, which was never. That’s when I realized things weren’t adding up.”  

Her fascination with sharks eventually led her to Florida Tech, where she majored in marine biology and later earned a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Cape Town. In South Africa, she researched white sharks and worked for the now-shuttered nonprofit Shark Savers, where she learned that conservancy works best when science is driving it. 

In 2014, Medd launched the American Shark Conservancy in Palm Beach Gardens. The nonprofit collects, analyzes, and distributes shark data that policymakers and advocates can use to push and pass better conservation laws. “We’re not a heavy advocacy group, but we want to make sure any science we do will be applied to making better policies,” she says. 

So far, the information her team has gathered from analyzing the diet of sharks shows that they have no hunger for humans. “We know from our data that sharks aren’t really influenced by when people are in the water,” says Medd. “Most people in Florida have been within six feet of a shark and had no idea.”

Tagging and tracking, taking samples like blood, and using lasers are some of the monitoring techniques the team uses to gather shark analysis that could help with shark conservation policies. For example, she says, “you can get information on microplastics and contaminants from their blood and muscle, which was a really good tool to argue against the fin trade. From these studies, you can make the argument the trade should be shut down because shark fins are so toxic and full of mercury.” 

Medd is working on a study that involves local lemon sharks with skin abnormalities. “We’re taking skin samples and will test them for contaminants,” she says. “We suspect it has something to do with the water quality. We’re also talking to coral and turtle people who are seeing an uptick in certain diseases. If it’s affecting coral reefs, it’s most definitely affecting sharks too.” 

Another point to all of this research, says Medd, is that the more we learn about sharks, the less scary they become. “For example, did you know lemon sharks return to the same place every year to give birth, just like sea turtles?” she asks. “They’ll starve their bodies and give up all their nutrients for their babies. I can remember a time when everyone thought sharks were just these cold, steel-blue animals that wanted to eat you. But as we learn more about them, their biology and behaviors, they become more relatable.” 

Hammerhead shark in the sea
Hammerhead shark

Habitat Destruction

The Treasure Coast’s proximity to the Gulf Stream makes it a haven for transient and pregnant sharks that use its estuarine and offshore areas for protection, hunting for food, and giving birth to their pups. It’s also home to several threatened and endangered species, including great hammerheads. 

But, like manatees and sea turtles, these sharks are struggling with issues like habitat loss and waters polluted with harmful toxins. 

The late (former Florida Representative) Kristin Jacobs and Representative Toby Overdorf
The late (former Florida Representative) Kristin Jacobs and Representative Toby Overdorf.

Representative Toby Overdorf wants to change that. A former biologist who has worked closely with sharks, one of his most notable accomplishments was getting Bill 680 to the governor’s desk. “At the time, [then Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives] José Oliva wanted to see this to the finish line,” says Overdorf. “He recognized Kristin Jacobs had done a lot of work on the bill, but because of her health, she wasn’t able to work it as she wanted to. Oliva asked me to make it happen, so I met with Kristin and those opposing the bill, and we were able to get the bill in a good position to get passed.” 

Now Overdorf is focused on cleaning up the St. Lucie River and other water
systems where seagrass is suffering. The submerged flowering plants make significant contributions to marine ecosystems, including maintaining water quality,
preventing erosion, and curbing global warming through carbon absorption. It is also the main food source of manatees, which are experiencing their own population trauma. 

Collaborating with FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Overdorf is working on a bill that would minimize the lengthy permit process to transplant seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon. A separate bill would necessitate companies to cover restoration costs for any damages their projects may cause to state-managed bodies of water like the lagoon, which substitutes as a nursery for bull sharks and many other species.

Stephen Kajiura. Photo by Stephen Kajiura
Stephen Kajiura. Photo by Stephen Kajiura

On Common Sense

Unless you live on Amity Island, you’re extremely unlikely to be attacked by a shark

For centuries, sharks have been typecast by Hollywood as bogeymen of the deep in films like Jaws and even on some of the shows that air as part of Discovery Channel’s popular weeklong Shark Week series that airs every summer. “By showing sharks jumping out of the water and biting seals, they’re perpetuating fear, and that’s what people get in their heads,” says biologist Stephen Kajiura, director of Florida Atlantic University’s Elasmobranch Research Laboratory. “This media coverage focuses on the sensational, the dramatic, the killer shark aspect rather than how cool they are just as themselves.” 

The fact is, Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File reported just 26 (nonfatal) shark bites throughout the Sunshine State in 2021. The majority of those occurred in surf-happy Volusia County, followed by Brevard and Palm Beach. 

When sharks do bite, says Kajiura, “it’s because they make a mistake. We’re not their natural prey, but they may confuse a reflection on someone’s hand for baitfish or a surfer for a seal.” 

Sharks are always patrolling for their next meal, so they follow fish close to the shoreline—which explains why most brushes with sharks happen within a few feet of the beach. A popular time for shark bites in Florida is during the fall, when huge schools of mullet migrate along the eastern coastline in anticipation of spawning offshore. When the water is churned up, swimmers can easily be mistaken for these baitfish. 

To mitigate a harmful encounter, says Kajiura, follow three simple rules: Avoid murky water, don’t wear jewelry (it can attract sharks), and don’t thrash around, as sharks associate this movement with a wounded or struggling fish. Kajiura also recommends swimming in view of a lifeguard tower so that, worst-case scenario, you can get help quickly. 

Get up close and personal on a (responsible) shark dive. Photo by Credit Cassandra Scott
Get up close and personal on a (responsible) shark dive. Photo by Cassandra Scott

Take the Plunge

Immeasurable insight can be gained from shark diving—but all dives are not created equal  

Shark diving is an increasingly popular pastime, but it’s important to consider only dives that are well-managed and put safety first. “I’m in favor of shark diving because it raises awareness,” says biologist Stephen Kajiura. If a shark does swim up to a person, he says, “it usually takes a look, then swims away. We’re just not very interesting to them, which is why they leave us alone.”

In collaboration with the American Shark Conservancy and the Fin Alliance, Shark Addicts in Jupiter hosts a diving experience called “Sharks and Lasers” that provides an exciting experience for divers while gathering research at the same time ($219/person, sharkaddictsdiving.com). Seasoned divers are equipped with GoPro cameras that collect size, age, reproduction status, and other measurements. The information is used to implement new policies. 

Swimming with (some species of) sharks can also help alleviate the fear many people have of sharks—especially children. While tagging sharks in Florida’s Big Pine Key, Representative Toby Overdorf taught shark education at Newfound Harbor Marine Institute. “Kids came from around the country to understand more about our oceans and take a shark class,” he says. After they learned fundamentals like shark biology, the kids went kickboarding and snorkeling with bonnetheads, nurse sharks, and other aquatic life. “They saw that they were perfectly fine and weren’t threatened,” says Overdorf. “I was proud to be a part of changing our future generation’s thinking about sharks.”

Schools of sharks follow mullet along the shoreline when baitfish migrate in the fall. Photo by Stephen Kajiura
Schools of sharks follow mullet along the shoreline when baitfish migrate in the fall. Photo by Stephen Kajiura

The Takeaway

The bottom line, say experts, is that without sharks, ocean life would become unbalanced—and the world would be a drastically different place. “Sharks perform a great service by keeping our fish stock healthy and the seas free of sick and injured animals,” says Overdorf.  

Biologist Stephen Kajiura, director of FAU’s Elasmobranch Research Laboratory, agrees. “The ramifications [of the shark population being wiped out] would be terrifying because they affect the ecosystem on so many levels,” he says, noting that when fish die, they leave behind algae and bacteria that consume the ocean’s reefs, causing them to die too.

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