Sharks are wildly popular and exciting. They're among the edgiest, sleekest and most fascinating creatures on the planet.
But high-def video isn't the only way to tell this story. Through these comics, we can explore how fascinating sharks are and also consider how sharks are being systematically removed from the Earth.
The good news is that along with each sad explanation of human-caused slaughter, I've included links to organizations that are helping put an end to the recklessness.
Why are sharks having so much trouble?
Researchers estimate that around 100 million sharks are killed by people every year. There are over 150 sharks on the IUCN Red List of endangered species.
These numbers are very troubling for conservationists. The main reason is that many sharks have slow reproductive rates, producing only 1 or 2 pups every other year. They simply can't keep reproducing as quickly as they're being killed.
Interestingly, some sharks, like the sand tiger, could have more than 1 or 2 pups each time they give birth, but something weird happens inside the pregnant mother. Like many other fish, sand tigers have viviparous birth, meaning their eggs hatch inside the uterus, so they're born live. Normally a dozen or so eggs are fertilized by different males inside each of the shark's two uteruses. Nothing too unusual so far, but here's where it gets weird: Once the largest embryo hatches and grows to a certain size — typically this is the pup sired by the first male the female chose to mate with — it needs to feed, so it will eat its own siblings ... inside the womb! And once the baby shark has eaten all of its womb-mates, it will eat the rest of the eggs inside its mom's uterus. The result is two baby sand tiger sharks about as long as a yard and ready to take on the world when they're born.
Scientists think this adaptation has been made so the sharks don't spend energy fighting off multiple males after the female has selected her preferred mate. The "loser" males get to mate with her, but instead of passing on their genes, they provide a meal for the "winning" male. You can read more about this fascinating life story here.
So you may wonder what's killing all the sharks? Here's a sad rundown of what's happening out there. Luckily, there are things we can all do to help prevent the big cartilaginous die off:
Sharks sold for meat
Given that sharks are slow to reproduce and are very high in mercury, there's really no reason why people should consume them, and we'd be harming themselves if we did. More often these days, markets are selling shark pups because fishers just can't seem to catch the adults. The fine folks at the Nakawe Project have compiled a list of stores that sell shark meat and how you can help combat the practices.
Abandoned fishing nets are trapping and killing multitudes of sharks and other marine life across the world. Somehow, the fishing industry needs to be held accountable for their gear.
Ghost Fishing is an organization that's not only educating people about this little-known but devastating form of destruction in the seas, it's also getting in the water and doing something about it.
With the number of sharks plummeting so quickly worldwide, shark fishing tournaments are becoming more of a grisly display of killing than an honorable sport. Thankfully, the Shark Free Marinas initiative is fighting against tournament fishing and working with the fishing industry to catch and release sharks. This will, hopefully, help improve their populations.
An estimated 40 percent of all the fish caught are caught by mistake, or considered to be bycatch. Much of the fishing industry uses nets and gear that is aren't selective enough. Longline fishing, especially used for tuna, has miles of nets and thousands of hooks that catch tons of marine life other than what is being targeted. You can learn about how to avoid eating seafood that's caught using these methods at the ever-helpful Seafood Watch website.
Until recently, bycatch was just tossed aside, regardless of if it was alive. Many sharks would survive the ordeal. That was until shark fin soup grew wildly popular. Nowadays, many fishermen will saw off each bycaught shark's fins and plop the bodies back into the sea — dead or alive.
Shark fin soup is a tasteless, faux-healthy status-symbol dish popular in parts of Asia. Despite its lack of nutritional or gustatory appeal, demand for it is increasing.
Many countries have outlawed it and some shipping companies like UPS and Air China have officially banned shipping shark fins. It seems like things are turning a small corner, at least in the U.S. and China.
By the way, one tiger shark was actually seen swimming around having been finned — and didn't get any help, like this hammerhead.
The Humane Society International has a list of ways you can help stop the slicing.
Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the world. While there are many sustainable ways that people are harvesting them, some practices are better than others. Lots of shrimp farms are destroying mangrove forests along the coast. These habitats are where many sharks, such as the lemon shark, have their nurseries. Mangroves also help produce plankton blooms which provide food for mighty whale sharks. The best thing to do for eating shrimp is to check the Seafood Watch's shrimp recommendation page.
Shark liver oil
Many people are looking to increase omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. If you've heard that shark liver oil is a good source, you're correct. But, sharks aren't the only place you get the supplement. Look here to find out where you can get your omega-3s without harming the wildlife in the oceans.
Apparently killer whales heard the memo about sharks and their nutritious livers. Recently, a handful of great whites were found dead with their livers extracted with surgical-like precision!
This news about sharks being attacked by killer whales seems off-putting at first, but when you think about it, it's actually encouraging. People haven't witnessed orcas killing great whites very often, and scientists believe that the reason these findings are appearing more often is due to an increase in the sharks' numbers. Better regulations for sharks and the foods they normally eat are helping populations increase.
Like so much of the natural world these days, things are looking rather bleak for sharks. However, if you focus on those who are trying to educate people and work to save the sharks, you'll see that there's a lot to be optimistic about.