Sea Science

The Science Of Sharks

A couple of years ago I attended the second Sharks International Conference in Cairns, North Queensland.

It presented research, opinions and questions on the future of sharks and rays throughout the world’s oceans. The first and only previous international conference for these species was held nineteen years ago.

I can only imagine what has changed since that first conference, called “Sharks Down Under”, initiated by shark conservationist John West, who compiled the Australian Shark Attack File.

Apart from the pleasure of watching presentations with current technology, instead of the carousel slide show of twenty years ago, much else has changed for the world of shark research.

In 1991, not much was known about great whites except that they were believed to be monsters that hunted people who swam at beaches. Tracking them to determine their behaviour had only barely emerged, with coastal mapping that used a compass, not the electronic tagging that has today revealed patterns of shark movements in such fascinating details

Fishing, both recreational and commercial, had no restrictions then, and the grey nurse shark was being wiped out by fisherman; a situation allowed because of its looks, which were fierce and caused alarm bells in humans, even though its behaviour was docile and timid.

Nineteen years ago research was all about cutting open a shark that was dragged in by a fisherman. From a carcass, scientists determined as much as possible in terms of age, reproduction and life history.

Today scientists know, for example, that black tip reef sharks have a complex social behaviour, the deepest diving fish is the manta ray, reaching depths of1400 metres, and that the great hammerhead is being exploited by fisheries and needs urgent intervention for it’s survival.

With the slow introduction of grants from the federal government for marine research, scientists now use better technology, and gain a clearer perspective on what this creature is all about. Twenty percent of papers on sharks by scientists deal with telemetry studies; and now, by necessity, there is sharper focus on conservation and fishing management.

But this isn’t enough. Without stronger funding and support from government bodies, marine scientists will be struggling for survival almost as much as the sharks are. We live in a world that is still not much concerned about the ocean’s inhabitants.

The ‘only good shark is a dead shark’ motto may be changing, but funding hasn’t. With medical science and health a high priority for governments, understandably, advancements in that field are enormous. You can guarantee that in the next twenty years you will be able to smoke, drink and do no exercise, and medical science will be able to combat the results.

But what of the impact of population growth, commercial and illegal fishing, climate change, offshore oil drilling and shipping, on marine life?

At this second international conference on sharks, it was established how little we know about these creatures, except that they are needed for the health of our oceans. The effects of climate change is stored in the oceans, and could be disrupting migration and feeding patterns for sharks. Acidity is rising in the oceans, affecting plant and corals, and food chains. Sharks are facing enormous pressures from commercial fisheries, by-catch and illegal shark fin trading.

So it is crucial to keep these gatherings going. The committee for Sharks International is concerned that it may be as much as five years before the next meeting.

Yet biodiversity is of paramount importance for our future. Sharks are crucial in our world and are on the edge of survival. The more we know about a species, obviously, the easier it becomes to protect it, which is why we need to ensure these International Conferences become an annual event.


Harriet Jones