For 450 million years, sharks have roamed the Earth’s oceans and gone through multiple evolutionary changes to adapt to the planet’s climate. Since sharks are cold-blooded creatures, they move to cooler water close to the poles to regulate their body temperatures.
However, sharks’ ability to survive is being negatively impacted by climate change, which is causing huge changes in the habitat on which they depend. Just like any other life on Earth, sharks have great adaptability and are able to evolve to colder and warmer temperatures, in the time period of a few thousand years. But climate change has been on an exponential rise since 1988 — only 35 years ago. With the water temperatures rising so quickly, sharks have been forced to migrate to areas where they have never explored before, and since many species are apex predators, these oceanic ecosystems are changing at a much too rapid pace.
Sharks have not been allocated enough time to adapt to the changes in temperatures, and the warmer waters will only continue affecting fully developed ecosystems. As a result, sharks have needed to change, but in a way that is not healthy for themselves or for other inhabitants of the ocean.
So what does this mean for the future of sharks?
Global warming poses an enormous threat to reefs, where two-thirds of sharks call home, with 14 of those species bordering extinction. As the oceans rise in temperature and become increasingly acidic, the reefs are dying off and the coral is turning white — a process known as coral bleaching. When these reefs disappear for good, sharks will be left with limited sources of prey, less protection for their nurseries, and even fewer fish to help remove parasites from their skin.
Focusing on a more global perspective, these warm waters are forcing sharks to change their migration routes, which disrupts the structure of the food chain. The bull shark, for example, has begun to appear in places they aren’t accustomed to. Since this particular species is an apex predator, they may become a threat to nursery areas and scare out other competing predators, which endangers all other animals involved.
In October 2020, research revealed that changing ocean temperatures, specifically in Port Jackson Bay, Australia, can affect metabolic rates and swimming activity. When waters grew warmer, maximum swimming activity decreased in the sharks. Gervais (2020), who was an author of the study, also stated that with a rise in water temperature of just 3℃, the energy needed to survive in sharks doubled.
There is no set year for “the point of no return.” But most scientists have agreed that cutting human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050 is important for the hope of reversing the climate crisis.
So how do we save the sharks, while simultaneously preserving our pristine oceans?
As broad as it is, the first step is always minimizing one’s carbon footprint and reducing energy consumption. By decreasing the production of greenhouse gasses, it will decrease the effect of climate change and lower the water temperatures of the ocean. Unplug appliances when not being used, take the exit stairs instead of the elevator and use public transportation when possible — these small changes are achievable and are proven to help the environment.
Amos Haggiag, CEO and Co-Founder of Optibus, offered some solutions during the COP26 conference that focused on the transportation sector.
“Personal vehicles alone produced about three billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in 2020,” Haggiag said. “Reducing vehicle emissions by changing how people travel is key to fighting climate change.”
A step forward in healing the planet is vital to conserving the oceans and the marine life within, and that can only happen once we start incorporating more sustainable practices in our routines. Sharks may have always been portrayed in a vicious light in the media, but these creatures — and many other fauna — are the heart of the world’s ecosystems.
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