Sharks: Demystifying a misunderstood actor in the marine ecosystem

    14 Aug 2021

    As the top predators in the marine habitat, sharks play an essential role in the ecosystem by maintaining the balance of the species below them in the food chain and serving as an indicator for ocean health. However, they are one of the most misunderstood sea creatures, The Peninsula Qatar states.

    A new National Geographic Wild series titled Shark!, which started airing in the Mena region on beIN (Doha-based broadcaster) from July 19, aims to demystify the misconceptions about sharks and raise awareness on protecting the marine ecosystem.

    “With over 500 species of sharks, they play different roles in the ecosystem. Some species can be very important for the health of oceans,” Dr. Mike Heithaus, a marine ecologist from Nat Geo’s Shark!, told The Peninsula via email.

    “One of the biggest ways (sharks play a role in ecosystems) is by keeping their prey in check. This may be by keeping their populations from growing too big or scary. For example, tiger sharks can keep sea turtles and sea cows from overgrazing seagrass, which is home to many species that people rely on,” he continued.

    Nonetheless, approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year globally, mainly due to the shark fin trade. It is difficult for many species to replenish their populations as quickly as they are diminished due to their slow growth and low reproductive rates.

    Globally, shark fishing and shark fining constitute a significant threat to the shark population. The Arabian waters are not an exception, with several countries in the Gulf struggling to keep a lid on the illegal shark fin trade.

    Qatar is home to one of the planet’s largest aggregations of whale sharks. Each year, hundreds congregate in the Al Shaheen region.

    According to studies, overfishing sharks for products like cartilage and oil contributes to a market worth almost $ 1bn per year. Qatar is home to one of the planet’s largest aggregations of whale sharks. Each year, hundreds congregate in the Al Shaheen region, a restricted marine zone off the northeast coast, from April to September.

    Other species found in the Arabian Gulf include great hammerhead, sicklefin lemon shark, tawny nurse shark, sandbar shark, bull shark, blacktip reef shark, and whitetip reef shark.

    In 2019, Qatar’s Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME) and North Oil Company signed an MoU to study the ‘adequate conservation and sustainable use of whale shark species in Qatar.’ This and many more conservation efforts further protect Qatar’s marine diversity, enhancing measures to preserve life in its territorial waters. Shark tourism is also an emerging trend for conservation because people can be educated on hand while connecting with the animals and understanding their ecological importance.

    “Many types of sharks need healthy ecosystems near shore. Pollution, desalination, dredging, and urbanization threaten mangrove forests, seagrass beds, kelp forests, and coral reefs. Without healthy places to live, sharks will continue to be in trouble,” stressed Dr. Heithaus.

    “We need people to pressure governments to take shark conservation seriously and shift from protecting what sharks are left to rebuilding populations where they are in trouble. We also need good enforcement in the fin trade — and major efforts are starting to pay off and make sure that catch levels are sustainable. Key to all of this is working with the people around the world who rely on fishing for sharks to make sure that they are part of the solutions or have other good opportunities for making a living as policies change,” he added.You may read about the pitfalls of the oceanariums and the keeping of sharks and other animals in captivity here.

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