Quirks & Quarks·Q&A

Swimming with sharks and debunking misinformation — all part of the job of a shark scientist

With shark and ray populations having declined 71 per cent over the last 50 years, a new book by David Shiffman says it's time for humans to stop being afraid of sharks — and instead, we should be afraid of losing them. 

New book, "Why Sharks Matter," dives into why we need to care about sharks, instead of being afraid of them

David Shiffman and his colleagues work up a nurse shark off the coast of Florida. (Christine Shepard/Sharktagging.com)

Despite scores of shark related movies that show these animals as razor-toothed, bloodthirsty monsters, the reality is that sharks aren't all that much of a threat to humans. In fact, they're incredibly ecologically important, and their survival is crucial for the ocean habitat that helps support us. 

In a new book, marine conservation biologist David Shiffman sets out to combat some of the misinformation swirling around sharks, and lays out a plan for how we can best protect them. With shark and ray populations having declined 71 per cent over the last 50 years, Shiffman says, it's time for humans to stop being afraid of sharks. Instead, we should be afraid of losing them. 

Shiffman is the author of Why Sharks Matter: a deep dive with the world's most misunderstood predatorHere is part of his conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What impresses you so much about sharks?

There's just so many things that are so amazing about sharks. And I've now seen thousands of sharks, more than 50 species on five continents. And every time I see one, I still feel the same way I did when I was a little kid, seeing my first shark at the Pittsburgh Zoo. They're just so powerful and graceful. Some of them I would even go so far as to say are beautiful.

People swim next to a Whale Shark in Mexico. The whale shark is one of the shark species threated with extinction, because of pressures from overfishing and habitat degradation. (EDIER ROSADO CHERREZ/AFP via Getty Image)

They've also been around a long time as top predators. How successful are they?

There have been animals recognizable as sharks swimming in the ocean, not only since before there were dinosaurs on land, but since before there were trees on land. This is a really ancient group of animals, and at least some species of them have survived every mass extinction event that's happened, in which so many other species haven't and whole groups have not survived, which makes what's happening to them, even in my lifetime, all the more tragic.

Before we get to that, as per the title of your book, why do sharks matter?

Predators are always important in terms of keeping the environment healthy, keeping the food web in balance. And when we're talking about the ocean and marine and coastal food webs, those support food security and provide food for billions of humans, including many of the poorest people on the planet. And they provide jobs and livelihoods for tens of millions of people. We very much want there to be healthy oceans and healthy coasts, and that means we need sharks.
A bull shark inspects a photographer, coming close to the camera, during a shark dive off the coast of Jupiter, Florida. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

So what are some of the biggest threats that sharks are facing today?

The biggest threat by far facing sharks is unsustainable overfishing. A new report by the IUCN Red List Shark Group found that about a third of all known species of sharks and their relatives are assessed as threatened with extinction, according to IUCN Red List Standards. That's a lot, and that's really bad, and 100% of the species that are threatened list among their threats overfishing. That doesn't mean that every species is threatened by overfishing, but every species that is threatened, is threatened by overfishing. You often hear people talk about shark conservation only in terms of shark finning or shark fin soup or the shark fin trade, but that's really a small and shrinking piece of the puzzle. And seeing so much focus on that is not good for sharks.

Take me through some of the misconceptions that people have about sharks.

Oh, there's just so many. There are lately one that has been extremely concerning is there is a movement of extremely loud and boisterous online activists that are claiming that there's no such thing as sustainable seafood, there's no such thing as sustainable fisheries. And we all need to stop all fishing entirely and all need to become vegan immediately, or else the ocean is doomed. And that's just not based on science and would be extremely harmful to food security as well as livelihoods in these coastal fishing communities around the world. 


I can't believe how often I have to say that to grown ups, to adults who should know better: don't hug the free swimming shark.- David Shiffman


The misconception used to be that the only good shark is a dead shark, that when you picture a shark, you picture jaws stalking the coastline and eating people just because it's mean. And now the pendulum has swung almost too far in the other direction, where you have some people saying not only are sharks not mindless killing machines, but they're actually cute, adorable, innocent puppy dogs who just need love and hugs and kisses. And there are people who do hug and kiss wild free swimming sharks — don't do that. I can't believe how often I have to say that to grown ups, to adults who should know better: don't hug the free swimming shark.

Take me through some of the work that scientists are doing to aid in shark conservation.

In my interactions with the public and my public education career, I encounter people who think they know things about sharks and a lot of what they know they learned from [Discovery Channel's] Shark Week. And Shark Week, it overwhelmingly focuses on one scientific research method, which is those GPS satellite tracker telemetry tags. And that is important. We do need to know where sharks go and where they spend their time and when in order to create useful marine protected areas. But that's not the only research tool, even if it's the only one that's hardly ever featured on Shark Week.

David Shiffman measuring a lemon shark in Florida. (David Shiffman)

We need to know how long do sharks live? How old are they when they first have babies, how many babies they have and how often things like that, as well as where they go, what they eat, how they interact with their environment, what sorts of fishing methods are especially bad and can we do something else instead? And there's also a variety of high tech tools, underwater cameras, emerging work with drones, things like that. So I wanted to introduce readers to a diverse selection of research methods that are available and not just those tracker tags.

What sorts of research priorities would you like to see the next generation of research scientists take on?

There's increasing recognition that climate change can be disruptive to the ocean. And that's been hardly studied for sharks. There have been a few studies that show it's likely to cause disruptions in their migratory pathways and habitat usage. But we don't really know what that's going to mean for shark conservation or shark fisheries. Right now, it's not considered anywhere near as big a threat as the overfishing we mentioned earlier, but that might change and we should probably study it. 

The social sciences are more and more important in conservation. And that means we're not just studying sharks, but we're studying people who interact with sharks, fishermen, beachgoers, scuba divers, members of the community who may or may not join in lobbying for protection. Because when you pass a law to protect an endangered species, that law doesn't actually influence what that species does. It only influences what the humans around that species do. So it's really, really important that we understand the human side of the equation, too. 

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz


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