When we visited the National Aquarium, I felt sure of two things: 1) I was sympathetic to the plight of the endangered animals and ecosystems on display. 2) I was glad that the animals were behind glass (at that moment, but in general I wish they were free).
As someone who has enjoyed studying water and aquatic ecosystems, it might seem natural to become a marine biologist, but it is difficult for me to move past my fear of being gobbled up by a crazy critter the moment my body enters the water.
For the sake of threatened organisms and ecosystems, however, we all must “take the plunge” and realize that they are more than just predators—they are essential parts of our natural world. We need not only to end overfishing and poor fishing practices, such as dredging and trawling, but to encourage attitude changes about aquatic life
Let’s take sharks, for example. One display in the aquarium asked visitors to reconsider these notorious fish, pointing out that you’re more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the beach than to be eaten by a shark. Sharks do not seek out human victims, but instead may mistake them for their natural prey, such as seals. Rather than seeing sharks as bloodthirsty, mindlessly belligerent predators, we should think of them as a natural part of a healthy ecosystem and the victim of poor decisions by humans.
While considering that idea, I thought for a moment, “Wow, how badass would it be to fight on behalf of sharks? I could film videos while wearing a wetsuit in the ocean and decrying the evils of shark fin soup!”
But then I remembered— I’m terrified of sharks! I cannot shut my eyes for a very long time in the shower because of my over-active imagination. (Come on, it’s possible for a shark to appear suddenly in my bathroom!) Sharks are commonly understood as a menace and a disturbance, and there’s no question that most people would say “good riddance” to shark populations without a second thought.
But worldwide shark populations are declining, thanks to negative human activities such as habitat destruction and bycatch. Cultural practices, such as shark fin soup in China, also cause high numbers of shark deaths. In order to create this delicacy, fishermen cut off shark fins (a practice called ‘finning’) and then throw the sharks back into the water, causing the shark to suffer and die without its mobility.
What’s worse, sharks reproduce at a slow rate (some gestation periods are almost two years!) and mature slowly (up to 15 years!), and so they cannot bounce back quickly following overfishing.
This loss of sharks is creating a cascading effect on ecosystems. For example, sharks’ prey, such as seals, are prospering, leading to the depletion of their fish and shellfish prey. The result is ecosystem chaos that could even affect human activities, such as the fishing industry.
Sharks are helpful for other reasons as well. As animals that rarely have cancer, they may have medical secrets for humans. As the oldest surviving vertebrates (over 300 million years!), they also have a lot to teach us about evolution and biology, and they even attract tourists to some waters who want to see sharks (this ecotourism generates over 314 million per year!).
As a first step toward understanding suffering ecosystems, we need to see animals, such as sharks, in aquariums. Aquariums serve as the site of a kind of water diplomacy. Their sea creatures, hailing from polluted, overfished, and dredged waters, are ambassadors for their marine and freshwater cousins.
Aquariums of course feature many more endangered animals than just sharks. Spiny anemones, loggerhead turtles and longsnout seahorses are also vulnerable to habitat pressures. Seahorses, appearing so delicate and lovely, are threatened due to pollution, trawling and the pet trade.
The next step, after taking a trip to the aquarium, would be swimming and snorkeling, to understand more fully the plight of these animals and ecosystems. However, I assure you that the next installment of this blog is not going to be: “Blogger faces fears by swimming in shark tank.” Perhaps I’ll just spend time with my new goldfish first.
Check out, “A day at the aquarium: part 1,” about why the National Aquarium is worth saving!