Sharks, popularly depicted as the villains of the deep, are often misunderstood and maligned. The truth is that they play a vital role in maintaining the health and balance of our oceans. The apex predators of the marine world, sharks are not only fascinating and diverse, but they are also essential for the well-being of marine ecosystems. Let's put it simply - there is no future for the health of our oceans without sharks.
The oceans, covering more than 70% of our planet's surface, are the cradle of life on Earth. These vast and mysterious depths are not just a source of fascination and beauty but also a backbone for the survival and prosperity of humanity. And at the heart of this blue world, patrolling the depths, are the ancient and enigmatic sharks. Far from being mere predators, sharks are guardians of the delicate balance of life that extends far beyond the surface.
Sharks and Ecosystem Stability
To understand the vital role of sharks in the ocean ecosystem, it is necessary to understand the marine food web. The marine food web is a complex, interconnected system that illustrates the transfer of energy and nutrients through various marine organisms within an ecosystem. It describes the relationships between different species in the ocean, showing how they interact as they consume and are consumed by other species. Who eats who, and who is eaten by whom, determines each organism's position in the food web. Sharks, as apex predators, stand at the very top of the food chain and they have several important roles in the ocean.
Sharks regulate prey populations and improve fish stocks. Sharks, sitting atop the marine food chain, are controlling the populations of their prey. By predating on weaker and sick individuals, they maintain the balance of various species. And healthy ecosystem is without a doubt a balanced one, where each element has its source of food and will eventually serve as food as well. Sharks are also preserving biodiversity. Sharks, through their selective predation, protect the genetic diversity of marine species. This diversity is essential for the long-term resilience of marine ecosystems, especially in the face of climate change.
The importance of the interconnected food chains
Let's look into some examples of how sharks affect the health of other parts of the ocean ecosystem which might seem not connected at first sight - like the coral reef. Sharks in fact play a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance of coral reefs. The reason is of course the connections in the marine food web: Sharks prey on herbivorous fish that graze on algae. Without sharks to regulate these populations, herbivorous fish can overgraze and damage corals. A study by Roff et al. (2016) in "Nature Communications" revealed a significant decline in the health of coral reefs in areas with decreasing shark populations.
Another example is how sharks affect the health of seagrasses. Researchers found out about this correlation in 2011, when a heat wave struck a region in Shark Bay, Australia. The high temperature of the ocean water caused a loss of seagrass, a main source of food for dugongs in the area. And how are sharks connected to all this? Well, when shark populations are healthy and balanced, they wander around the seagrass beds, and dugongs and other shark prey species steer clear. That keeps the seagrass from being decimated too fast and enables it to recover. Without the presence of sharks, the seagrass is simply being grazed too fast to recover. Seagrass serves as a critical storage of "blue carbon," and helps to mitigate climate change. The unexpected connection between sharks, seagrass, and climate change underscores the delicate balance within marine ecosystems. By preserving seagrass, we not only safeguard critical marine habitats but also contribute to the fight against climate change.
Understanding the food web connections highlights the importance of protecting shark populations. But the balancing role of sharks is not only good for the ocean ecosystem itself, but also for the human benefit. Why? Because sharks are also improving the health of commercial fish stocks. A study by Baum et al. (2003) in the journal "Science" demonstrated that the loss of sharks can lead to an increase in their prey species, which in turn can reduce the abundance of commercially important fish. Thus, the conservation of sharks is crucial for maintaining sustainable fisheries.
Marine butterfly effect?
What we are describing here has a lot to do with something that is called a cascading effect.
A cascading effect in a food web refers to the way changes in one trophic level (a position in the food chain) can lead to a series of indirect and often unanticipated consequences throughout the entire ecosystem. These effects can either be top-down or bottom-up, depending on where the initial change occurs in the food web. And as sharks are at the very top of the marine food chains, there is a lot beneath them to be affected in case of their disappearance.
If there is a reduction in the population of sharks, the next trophic level of consumers (secondary consumers) may experience an increase in population because they are less preyed upon. This can lead to a decrease in the abundance of the organisms they feed on, which, in turn, can impact the primary producers. In this way, a top-down cascading effect can disrupt the entire ecosystem.
What if there were no sharks anymore?
This leads us to the question of what would happen if there were no sharks in the ocean anymore. The ongoing and alarming decline in shark populations, estimated at a staggering 70% in some areas, has set off a complex web of cascading effects throughout marine ecosystems. As we explained above, the decline of shark populations can even affect our ability to combat climate change.
But we can only observe and study the results of what has already happened, the researchers can only study events and phenomena that are already happening. Based on these we can, without a doubt, predict that further shark declines will do nothing positive for the marine ecosystem, nor for the necessary transition to sustainability in fisheries. Continuing with shark fishing on today's level and waiting to see the final effects of this behavior is a dangerous gamble. By implementing strict conservation measures, supporting responsible fishing practices, and raising awareness about the importance of sharks in marine ecosystems, we can take proactive steps to prevent the potential ecological crisis. We should not wait until we witness the full consequences of the decline of shark populations, because by then, it may be too late to rectify the harm done.