Sharks are a misunderstood species. Yes, they are top predators in the marine world and humans have been killed or injured by sharks (though the chances are very, very slim).
However, sharks play a key role in the ecosystem by keeping the food web in balance and help underwater habitats thrive.
Sharks tend to eat the slower, older or unhealthy fish thus preventing the spread of potentially harmful diseases.
Removing the weakest sea creatures also strengthens the prey species’ gene pools. As the “fittest” fishes generally multiply in greater numbers, this leads to a bigger population of healthy fish.
Through intimidation, sharks inadvertently regulate the behaviour of prey species, preventing them from overgrazing vital habitats.
For example, turtles (a prey of tiger sharks), graze on sea grass. Without the sharks, the turtles tend to spend too much time grazing on the most nutritious sea grass, consequently destroying those habitats.
Out of the 70 species of sharks found in Malaysian waters, only the whale shark is protected under the Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulations 1999 (part of the Fisheries Act 1985).
Recently, the Sabah Government proposed that four more shark species and two ray species be protected under the Regulations.
In a recent e-mail interview with marine scientist Alvin Chelliah, a programme manager from Reef Check Malaysia – a non-profit organisation that engages with the local community to raise awareness on coral reef protection – he discusses his love for sharks, their role in the marine ecosystem and the urgent need to protect them.
1. What do you love about sharks?
If you ever get the chance to swim with sharks, you will realise just how perfectly made they are in (terms of) their design, the way they move, the way they hunt.
We are talking about an animal that has had the same general form since the time of the dinosaurs. It’s like even evolution took a good look at sharks and said, nah, don’t need to mess with that, it’s already perfect. This is why I love sharks.
It’s also hard not to get excited over a fish with no bones, but with armour scales and rows of teeth that never stop replacing themselves after falling off. Sharks also have special electroreceptor cells that allow them to use electric fields to navigate and hunt for prey. I mean come on, you have to admit they are just freaking awesome.
2. What is the role of sharks in the marine ecosystem?
Sharks are apex predators sitting on top of the food chain in most marine ecosystems. In a balanced ecosystem, small herbivorous fish get eaten by carnivores that in turn get eaten by apex predators.
So sharks help control the population of these smaller carnivores such as groupers and snappers. Remove sharks from the picture and the smaller carnivores increase, thus eating up herbivores such as parrot fish and rabbit fish.
Once the population of herbivores decreases, you will have excessive growth of algae (which choke corals). This can cause major, perhaps irreversible, changes to the ecosystem.
3. The Sabah Government is pushing for four more shark and two ray species to be protected. What is your comment?
Within our marine parks, all sharks and rays are protected by the Fisheries Act. If it was up to me, I would legally protect all sharks anywhere (not just inside marine parks) around Malaysia.
But coming back to reality, I think it’s (still) awesome that the (Sabah Government) is pushing for more species to be protected by law. This shows that Malaysians are starting to realise the importance of sharks and that we want to do something to protect them.
Can we do more? Yes of course, but this is a good start.
4. What can help protect sharks and rays?
Social media and television are perfect for informing people. Videos, pictures and narratives of sharks swimming gracefully in the sea, (make a stark contrast to those with) their fins sliced off and left for dead at the bottom of the seabed.
All this can touch our soul and kindle the desire to ensure the survival of these animals.
Many of us are still not very aware of the importance or beauty of sharks. Like we say (in Malay), Tak kenal maka tak cinta (Hard to understand the unfamiliar), and if you think you kenal sharks because you watched all the Jaws movies, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Sharks are not bloodthirsty, mindless killers. Educational shows like Shark Week on Discovery Channel have been trying to fix the negative stigma around sharks.
I’m sure many who have watched the shows have had a change of heart.
5. What is the main danger to sharks?
I would say that the high demand and price tag on shark fins is the main danger to sharks.
The shark fin industry is a multi-million dollar industry and when there is so much money involved, there are always as many reasons why people do not want things to change.
6. What do you think should be done to protect sharks?
First, we need to educate ourselves on this matter by reading up or tuning in to Shark Week on Discovery (Channel).
We need to be informed to make better decisions, to know what businesses we are going to support. You have heard it many times; when the buying stops, the killing can too.
Secondly, voice your concerns to those in power. Push for greater protection for these animals. Report violations to the authorities.
Thirdly, support local initiatives. There are many NGOs working to protect sharks that need public support.
The next time you plan a holiday, visit one of our Malaysian marine parks where all shark species are protected.
Shark Week returns to Discovery Channel (Astro Ch 551; July 24-28) for its 29th instalment with 10 episodes of special shark stories incorporating innovative research technology to reveal insights into some of the most unique shark species in the world.
Catch Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps as he dives into the shark world at the Bimini Shark Lab in Miami, Florida, United States. Listen to Chris Noth narrate the episode, ‘Sharks And The City: New York’.