The Jaws of Life

People who don’t know much about sharks might want to call them the ‘Jaws of Death’. But if you are familiar with the complexity of the biological balance in the ecosystem of the oceans, you will know that those are indeed ‘Jaws of Life’.

The aim of this website is to introduce these wonderful and important animals to you. Let me tell you why I call them ‘Jaws of Life’.

Sharks have inhabited the oceans for 430 Million years. The modern sharks have not changed much in the last 60 million years. Being the apex predators in the ocean, they maintain the biological balance in that very complex ecosystem. The bigger sharks keep the numbers of other predator fish and smaller sharks at a viable level. They keep water-birds and seals at viable numbers too, who otherwise, together with other predatory fish, would eat too many of the little fish which again are the ones who keep the coral reefs free from suffocating algae. Without sharks this very complex ecosystem will break down. Coral reefs without reef sharks will die within one year. Once all the reefs are dead, the oceans will die, because coral reefs host about 1/3 of all marine life. It is all very closely connected.

It might be difficult to understand, that without sharks, the fish populations, which are necessary for human consumption, will decline and the balance in the oceans will be lost. We already see the results of indiscriminate killing of sharks around the world. Scientists have discovered that the number of rays and octopus, the favorite food for some shark species, have multiplied rapidly in some parts of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Those rays are already threatening the lobster populations and the overall balance in those regions. In the Carolinas the scallop industry has been wiped out because large numbers of cow-nosed rays, the favorite food of some reef sharks, are now eating the scallops before they spawn. What is the reason for that? There are not enough sharks left to control the number of rays. The people who used to live of that industry have lost their jobs and their livelihood. Once again, human interference has endangered the balance of nature. Coral reefs without reef sharks will die within one year, that’s a fact. If the balance is lost there is one devastating chain reaction after the other. Reef sharks are territorial and if all sharks on one reef are killed, it takes years for a new population to establish itself, if ever. Meanwhile, the reef will die.

If we humans continue to destroy sharks, the controlling factor in the ocean, we could eventually create the largest ecological disaster in the history of mankind. Sharks have survived five periods of extinction. However, this time, because of highly sophisticated fishing techniques, long-line fishing and huge trawlers to saturate human greed, it could well be the end of them. Global Warming is also contributing to the problem, because, when the oceans heat up by only a few degrees, the Phytoplankton production could be reduced to a dangerously low level and the production of 50% of the world’s oxygen supply will be interrupted or completely lost. Plankton is the smallest and at the same time the mightiest creature in the oceans, and the most important one. Phytoplankton produces oxygen through photo synthesis through sunlight. Zooplankton, is the bottom of the food chain and food for plankton feeders like some whales and the three largest sharks: the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and the Megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios).

»The problem is not maneating sharks, it’s man eating sharks«
— Dr. Sylvia Earle

As you can see there is a fine balance in the oceans and if one important controlling factor is lost, the delicate system will break down and the ocean will die. The ocean is not infinite, many species of fish have already been wiped out by bad management, or no management at all, which resulted in irresponsible overfishing. If we strip away the apex predator at the top of the food chain, the bottom will most likely follow.

Yet, no animal on earth is feared more by humans than sharks. The media loves to portray them in exaggerated stories as merciless killers or man-eaters. They love to tell stories about bloody shark attacks which result in lost limbs and dead people. It is this fear and the exaggerated stories that are the greatest problem we face in our efforts to save the sharks from extinction. Fishermen hate them because sharks sometimes eat their catch. But there will be no more fish to catch, if the sharks are gone. There are 25,000 species of bony fish but only a few are suited for human consumption. Sharks keep the numbers of predatory fish low, which would otherwise eat the fish that we humans need for food. Sharks are actually helping fishermen in the sustainable use of fish. But what we do today is no longer sustainable. The oceans are being over-fished and there is no end to the looting. We have to explain to all tourist oriented countries, that live sharks are worth much more than dead sharks because tourists want to see them and dive with them. There is an ever growing number of divers who want to swim with sharks. In a way shark diving has helped to improve the image of sharks. That, however, is of no interest to some members of the media.

The fact is that sharks are more threatened by humans than humans are threatened by sharks. But people fear sharks because they are being told over and over again that sharks are aggressive by nature. That is not true at all. For some reason people just love to hate sharks. Fact is, that of all potentially dangerous animals on earth, sharks kill the fewest number of people. However, if somebody gets bitten or killed by a shark, it will be in every news paper of the world.