Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Dinosaurs, sharks and children

Like me, many mothers with sons are likely to have an ‘above average’ knowledge of dinosaurs and sharks.  Some of this knowledge stays with you even as the boys grow into men – and some of it stays with them no doubt, if not crowded out by hormones etc.

Aside from the seminal film ‘Jaws’ tainting the Great White with a human-hating personality, and the dubious invention of ‘Sharktopus’, most of what I have seen on sharks is documentary. My son was riveted by Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and we had at least two model sharks (though seriously outmatched by a whole zoo of plastic dinosaurs). 

I visit the Cambridge University museums often – particularly the Sedgwick which houses prehistoric relics from the region and a full-size replica of an iguanodon skeleton. I love looking at the model recreations of small dinosaurs, and the skeletal remains of ichthyosaurs that are a step towards our modern sharks. I say modern, but sharks in fact pre-date dinosaurs by several million years.

Sharks are apex predators – an essential part of the complex ecosystems that live in our oceans. Though I’m relieved that the megalodon (a prehistoric shark which might have been as long as 67 feet) is extinct, it is concerning that we are losing our current populations of sharks. At current rates several species may join the megalodon in extinction very soon.

Why? What is happening to our sharks, and what is the impact of losing them? This apex predator is itself being predated. It is being hunted and consumed by an animal with no predator to manage its population – or its hunger for wildlife: humans. Millions of sharks are fished for their meat, skin and liver oil, whilst some are taken just for their fins.

Shark fishing
Many are aware of the precarious nature of fish stocks in our oceans and fishing quotas, marine reserves and many other regulations have been put into place to try and preserve our dwindling wild fish stocks. But shark fishing (and bycatch, where sharks are incidentally caught when fishing for other species) has been largely unregulated until relatively recently.

Sharks continue to fascinate me – they are living prehistoric relics, essential to the balance of life in the ocean. Sharks, rays and chimaera (another close relative) are now under threat, and it’s not just the Asian market for shark fin soup that is driving their decline. Europe’s penchant for eating skate and many other fish products that contain shark meat is contributing to the decline of these amazing creatures (Europe is in fact the third largest consumer of wildlife products after Asia and the USA).

If you have time, listen to Glenn in the video below talking about the work that he and his team are doing. It’s thanks to passionate individuals like Glenn and the many like him in conservation organisations around the world, that we might actually stand a chance of saving endangered species.

What can you do? You can support wildlife charities, you can sign petitions and lobby government to protect our oceans. You can eat only MSC certified fish, and learn more about our oceans so that you can make informed choices on what seafood you choose to consume - and educate your children. It’s their world we are destroying.

I loved learning about dinosaurs as a child and as a mother. I love learning about sharks and other wildlife as a conservation professional. I do hope that we can help preserve these less than loveable creatures for the sake of our children, and the planet.

Further reading:
Picture credits:
Ichthyosaur: http://walkingwith.wikia.com/wiki/Ichthyosaurs
Shark and fisherman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zjmac - with kind permission

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