Sharks – what have they ever done for you? A lot in fact…
There’s no hiding the fact that sharks are one of the earth’s most fearsome beasties, the way they cruise around the deep blue, gnashing through anything and everything that crosses their path.
But, aside from plaguing your ocean-faring nightmares, what have sharks ever done for you? Well, a whole lot in fact. Not only are these marine giants keeping the busy food chain in check, they’re also inspiring revolutionary smart design and making waves in the healthcare department.
If these majestic creatures were to continue on their plummeting trajectory towards extinction, it would be bad news for a whole lot of us. Here are just a few of the reasons why…
The healthcare Holy Grail
There is a well-known myth circling out there that sharks just don’t get sick and – while it may not be technically true – it has been proven that they get ill significantly less often over their lifetimes than other species. This has led many researchers to try and discover how sharks effortlessly bat away marine superbugs.
Well, studies have shown that shark tissue appears to have anticoagulant and antibacterial properties, providing the base to some pioneering treatments for a wide range of medical conditions, including anything from the common cold, to life-changing diseases like cystic fibrosis.
The compound within shark tissue is called squalamine and while it may start to make a few us feel a little squeamish, it is already making waves in clinical trials around the world – researchers reporting that it can disrupt a virus’ life cycle and prevent it from replicating. There are plenty of anti-viral drugs to target viruses, but many are too specific – each targeting just one strain of a virus – leaving others to mutate and become resistant. Squalamine takes no prisoners in the virus department, just like the creatures it comes from, this compound is one effective predator. Its prey? Microscopic viruses no less.
The ocean’s top innovators
For 400 million years, spanning several mass extinctions and catastrophic, worldwide disasters, sharks have continued to be one of the fastest, most anatomically efficient animals living in the open ocean. Humans have been trying to practice biomimicry on them for years but only now has the technology come about to allow us to do so.
A lot of research is currently aimed at constructing artificial shark skin, a product that aims to reduce frictional drag while swimming, as well as prevent the accumulation of algae and barnacles on the underside of giant container ships. The artificial skin has so much promise that many researchers even attest to its fantastic anti-bacterial properties – making it ideal to line hospital surfaces and equipment.
As well as replicating a shark’s slippery speed through the water, some Australian researchers have now designed a device to capture wave energy and convert it into electric power. And guess what? It’s modelled on a shark’s tail – one of the most efficient and effective paddles seen in nature. Who’d have thought sharks would be so kind as to lend us such clean, fossil-fuel alternatives? Nature really is incredible.
Thanks to the increased awareness surrounding the behaviour and temperament of sharks over the past decade, public fascination with the creatures has been thriving, leading to the development of booming ecotourism industries in the Bahamas, South Africa, Belize and the Galápagos Islands. According to a study published in 2013, shark tourism generates more than $300 million a year, as well as providing more than 10,000 jobs in 29 different countries. In these areas, a shark is worth more alive than it is dead; many valuing the experience of witnessing them thriving naturally over any kind of merciless hunting and killing practices.
Just off the coast of Belize, dive tourism is so profitable that one Whale Shark alone can bring in an estimated $2 million over its lifetime; that’s a fish worth more than many of our nation’s minor celebrities, many I’m guessing that we’d trade in a heartbeat for just a glimpse of one of these colossal, peaceful fish.
Not only do these ocean beasties help to boost economies, they also prevent them from going under. In North Carolina, a big loss in the local shark population has led to an increase in the number of hungry rays, bottom cruisers that eat all the bay scallops. This has caused many fisheries to close and has seen clam chowder axed from many classic American menus – all because the sharks have upped sticks and moved away from the North Carolina killing fields.
A seamless cycle
The carbon cycle, otherwise known as earth’s life support system, is a critical process that allows the planet to harbour such lush, diverse and populous life. For the cycle to run harmoniously however, it needs to be kept in check. This largely involves the laborious task of decomposing all the dead matter that collects on the ocean floor, large deposits of carbon that could otherwise negatively contribute to climate change and increase the ocean’s acidity.
Many deep-sea sharks, including the Sleeper Sharks mentioned above, as well as Megamouth Sharks and Goblin Sharks – truly terrifying, but completely necessary ocean beasties – chow down on all the decaying matter found on the ocean floor. Flabby whale carcasses, flaccid giant squids, putrid marine snails – you name it – they’ll eat it.
Clearing the detritus from the ocean floor prevents pockets of carbon build up, and helps to spread the life-bearing nutrient around the ocean – encouraging more life to flourish. When we hunt these larger sharks and remove them from the ocean, we disrupt a small part of the ocean’s carbon cycle. These small parts gradually add up however, and killing over 100 million of them a year certainly isn’t going to help the cycle run any smoother.
Offer a helping fin
With all the things that sharks do for us, it’s only right that we give them a little back. Perhaps we could begin by clearing up their ocean, contribute to charities that protect them, and back policies that want to save them, before it’s all too late.
The world’s ecosystem is like one giant game of Jenga, and currently, we’re playing a very risky game. Sharks are one of those outside pieces, the kind that make the whole tower wobble even if you tentatively feather a finger at one. A wrong move or rash decision is all it takes to make this tower come crashing down – don’t be a spoil sport, let’s keep this game of Jenga going forever more.