Shark spotted by our Shark Conservation volunteers in Fiji.

Why sharks are important to our ecosystem and how you can help protect them

By Julie Brondeel | 17th April, 2019
Updated on 23rd June, 2020

Duun dunn… duun dunn… We know the theme song from the horror movie Jaws all too well. But there is a whole lot more to sharks than what this horror movie tells you.

In this blog, we dive into some of the most frequently asked questions about sharks. We’ll talk about the role sharks play in our ocean, why they’re important, and  what you can do to contribute to shark conservation efforts overseas in countries like Fiji.

Why are sharks important?

People often have a warped perception of sharks being ‘brutal monsters out for our blood’. This often stands in the way of their real importance: sharks are crucial for the marine environment.

Situated at the top of the food chain, sharks feed on potentially destructive fish populations. Their intervention stops these populations from exploding and taking over a particular location. You could see them as the ocean’s immune system. Imagine taking away the immune system of all humans. We’d all get sick and struggle to stay alive.

But despite their importance, sharks are still being threatened every day.

Shark Conservation volunteers and staff help with a survey dive off the coast of Fiji during their shark conservation project overseas

Are sharks endangered?

Yes. They are. And humans are to blame.

Every hour, about 11 thousand sharks are killed. That’s three sharks killed every second. Today, a third of shark species have been wiped out. They have been roaming the earth’s oceans for more than 400 million years and it’s our duty to protect this ancient species.

Why should we protect sharks from humans?

So, what are sharks killed for? The biggest threat to sharks is illegal finning, where the fins are cut off and the shark is thrown back into the ocean. Unable to swim without their fins, the sharks sink to the bottom and die of suffocation or get eaten by other predators. The fins are then sold for shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia to show off social status.

Another threat is the overfishing happening around the world. When fish populations decrease, humans have to cast their nets wider and end up catching other animals, such as sharks. Currently 80% of longlining is bycatch of sharks. This means that sharks are often caught incidentally and, as a result, many will be discarded. This contributes to the decline of different shark species.

“Now to be honest, I wasn't very scared but I will say this for anyone who is worried: there is absolutely no reason to be afraid. Especially after taking an additional PADI course where one learns the devastating effects of shark finning and the overall ignorance of sharks; one pities them more than being scared of them.” Kelly D, High School Special: Shark Conservation, Fiji

Sharks have become an endangered species because of human impact and activities. The remaining shark population is declining faster every day.

Shark Conservation lead scientist measures a juvenile zebra shark

What would happen if sharks went extinct?

Ecosystems are a fragile network where each actor plays a unique role. Scientists have found that when one actor (for example an apex predator such as a shark) is removed from the ecosystem, the next-in-line actor will blossom, but only temporarily. Their population would rise so quickly that they would overeat their prey, to the point of extinction. A destructive chain of events would lead to an increase in algae, which would choke coral reefs and eventually kill them. If coral reefs die, thousand of species will lose their habitat.

Besides the direct destructive consequences for the marine ecosystem, it would take away a major source of food and income for local fishermen and coastal communities.

How are our volunteers contributing to shark conservation overseas?

Scientists are using every opportunity available to learn more about sharks and how to protect them. To us, two aspects are key to their survival: scientific research and awareness campaigns to promote shark conservation.

At our Shark Conservation Project in Fiji, we focus on both. Our researchers and volunteers work towards long-term goals. As a volunteer, you’ll help:

Collect data on marine life to inform conservation policies

You’ll be provided with PADI Open Water Dive training so you can assist with the collection of scientific research during survey dives.

During this Shark Conservation Project, you’ll:

  • Dive with bull sharks and collect information on their behaviour
  • Record details about different shark species during survey dives
  • Deploy Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs) to study sharks without human presence and interference
  • Observe the local staff tag juvenile sharks so we can monitor their lifespan, nursery habitats, and reproduction

This research is central to the project. We share it with global monitoring platforms such as eShark and SharkBase. Because of this research we can continue to protect and respond to the declining shark population.

“I also helped out on the shark tagging programme. This involved us going out on various rivers in Fiji and attempting to catch and tag juvenile bull sharks. This species is famous for its ability to survive in freshwater, and we wanted to determine which rivers in Fiji the sharks use, and roughly how many are actually in the rivers. This kind of information is crucial if we are to determine which areas of river we need to protect for these sharks.” Mark M, Shark Conservation Project, Fiji

Plant mangroves to offset carbon footprints in Fiji

As well as the core work with sharks, you’ll care for mangrove seedlings in our nursery and replant mangroves along the coast.

Mangroves are one of the most important ecosystems in the world. Historically, people overlooked the value of mangrove forests and removed them from the coastlines to widen navigation channels. What they didn’t know is that the mangroves provide a habitat structure that keeps young sharks safe from predators. They also act as nurseries for many other fish species, prevent erosion and reduce carbon emissions.

We’re currently working in partnership with local businesses in Fiji, Mexico and Thailand to offset their carbon emission levels through mangrove reforestation. We are proud to announce that the Fiji Uprising resort was deemed fully carbon neutral in 2018, after our volunteers planted over 15 acres of mangroves!

Raise awareness about conservation and the importance of sharks

We run different shark conservation lectures, marine ecology and environmental classes in order to protect and educate people. This can include running an awareness workshop, teaching a class on recycling with schoolchildren, or attending a lecture on shark identification.

“Given that the local villages have rights over Shark Reef, as well as other neighbouring reefs, community education is another crucial aspect of the shark conservation project. I participated in several community outreach activities such as painting a kindergarten building, planting nutritional plants for village use, and playing games related to shark education.” Christina C, Shark Conservation Project, Fiji
Volunteers underwater collecting data in a shark conservation project in Fiji

How can you help?

By joining our Shark Conservation Project in Fiji, you get to work with sharks firsthand and learn about the importance of shark conservation overseas. With your help, we aim to improve the protection around shark populations and increase awareness among local communities.

We hope to see you on the sunny shores of Fiji sooner rather than later!

Projects Abroad Conservation volunteers do a puppet show for a Koh Sdach primary school on the importance of Shark conservation

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