Despite the bloodthirsty image we humans often foist onto sharks, the truth is that we need them so much more than we realize. In fact, the future of our entire planet depends on their continued survival. Why is this?

Sharks play a vital role in managing the health and diversity of their ecosystems. A thirty-five-year-long study of the coastal northwest Atlantic ecosystem revealed that as shark numbers dropped, their prey species – skates and rays – became a dominant presence within the ecosystem. Skates and rays typically consume small shellfish. The cownose rays’ increased shellfish consumption, once sharks began to disappear, even led to the collapse of a century-old bay scallop fishery. Similar accounts of what happened once sharks’ population dropped have been reported in the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the eastern Scotian Shelf.

Sharks are even helping to slow the spread of climate change by preying on species who would otherwise consume large amounts of carbon-storing vegetation. Scientists estimate that when just one percent of this vegetation is lost in a single year, 460 million tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere – the equivalent of the emissions generated by 97 million cars!

Increased greenhouse gas emissions have caused the world’s median temperature to rise by 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1950 alone: bringing about a significant rise in sea levels and placing the future of polar ice caps, low-lying island nations, and countless animal species into serious jeopardy. Any measure that we humans can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ought to be seriously considered. Sharks could play a critical role in the fight against climate change, so their conservation ought to be a top priority for anyone concerned about the health of our world.

Sadly, however, we slaughter these animals at the staggering rate of 100 million every single year. Much of this is driven by a rampant worldwide trade in their fins and cartilage. Some types of shark have witnessed an unbelievable 98 percent decline in their numbers over the past fifteen years alone. The Shark Foundation lists over two hundred of the estimated 400 shark subspecies as “endangered” and warns that more than a hundred of these “are being commercially exploited (and) many of these shark species are so overexploited that even their long-term survival can no longer be guaranteed.”

Overfishing is another serious threat to sharks’ survival. Commercial trawlers commonly catch and kill large numbers of sharks and other untargeted marine animals, while searching for species such as cod or tuna. This phenomenon is known as “bycatch.” Oceanic conservation group Sea Shepherd has estimated that every year, “50,000,000 sharks are caught unintentionally as bycatch by commercial tuna and swordfish fisheries using long lines, nets, purse seine, and gillnets.”

This photo exposes the sad reality of what we have done to the sharks of this world.

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This horrible image represents what happens far too often to the endangered – and vitally important – sharks of our planet. We’re mercilessly killing these animals for our own gain and in so doing, we’re destroying the oceans. As shark advocate and conservationist Madison Stewart said, “The sea is no longer healthy or happy everywhere. We have an obligation to expose the bad and hope in doing so we can save the good. And those who choose to remain in the light, and never step over to the darkness to face it or document it, you’re fooling yourselves.”

Hope for Sharks – and Ourselves

Luckily, there are signs that the shark fin trade may be on the way out. Shark fin soup has traditionally been seen as a highly sought-after delicacy in Asia, but a number of recent social awareness campaigns in China have drawn attention to the horrendous toll that this has taken on the world’s shark population. As a result, public perception is shifting. In 2014, it was reported that shark fin sales in the markets of Guangzhou – the center of China’s shark fin trade – had plummeted by 82 percent. Last year, UPS committed to ending its shipments of shark fins, joining companies such as Philippine Airlines and DHL. Despite increased pressure from animal lovers all over the world, however, FedEx has yet to make a similar commitment.

One of the most effective ways you can help sharks is by leaving seafood off your plate. One person who cuts seafood out of their diet can save around 225 fish every year – and this number does not even take into account the “bycatch” species (including sharks, dolphins, turtles and even small whales) who die at the hands of fishing trawlers every year. For more information on how you can make a difference and help end the needless slaughter of sharks, read the articles below.

Lead Image Source: Malkusch Markus/Flickr

In-text image Source: Shutterstock