Even though the official shark week observations have come to an end, the Audubon Aquarium celebrates all year long by sharing with everyone the importance of shark conservation and the crucial roles sharks play in the ocean ecosystems.
“Sharks play a vital role in top-down maintenance of ocean ecosystems around the world,” said Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Audubon Aquarium of the Americas Rich Toth. “Globally, shark and ray species are threatened with extinction largely due to overfishing and other unsustainable human practices.”
Despite their importance to the ocean ecosystems, sharks today face many threats and populations are in trouble. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by fisheries every year. This includes sharks that are harvested only for their fins, but also are the product of by catch and accidentally getting caught in nets and long line fishing setups. Although you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a shark, hunting and culling shark populations is practiced around the globe due to fear of these often-misunderstood animals.
As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Audubon Aquarium has partnered with fellow member organizations to help the Shark and Ray SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program. AZA SAFE programs provide a new approach for collaborative conservation with a Conservation Action Plan that includes specific projects, goals, and actions to address the needs of each species, including sharks and rays. The overarching goal as stated from the SAFE shark and ray's program “…is to enable evidence-based support for conservation action, engage action among key public and stakeholder groups, support science-based shark conservation communication, and create opportunities for partners to provide direct, impactful, and collaborative support for the conservation of this taxa.”
Last year, the Aquarium opened Shark Discovery, a 13,000-gallon shark and ray touch pool. The pool measures approximately 60-feet-long by 16-feet at its widest point--six times the size of the previous stingray touch pool at the Aquarium. A massive LED screen running the entire length of the pool features a variety of sharks, rays, and fish to highlight the diversity of the ocean. Guests who visit the aquarium can interact with different species of stingrays and small sharks at the immersive Shark Discovery touch pool including white spotted bamboo sharks, an epaulette shark, southern stingrays, coral cat sharks, bullnose rays, a blue-spotted stingray, and cownose stingrays. During these interactions, the Audubon Aquarium is able to share fun facts and conservation messages delivered directly by the aquarists and educators who care for the animals daily.
By fostering a connection to marine life through hands-on interaction with sharks, Audubon hopes to encourage an appreciation and a level of empathy for these often misunderstood, but essential, species. The goal of the newest experience is help guests realize that sharks have far more to fear from humans than humans do from them.
Shark and Ray Facts:
- Sharks and rays are usually very wary of people and will swim away long before you see them. However, you should always be aware of your surroundings when you are in the ocean and never harass or approach a shark or stingray you may see. To prevent accidental stingray barb incidents, it is also recommended to practice the “stingray shuffle” when visiting the beach. Simply put this practice involves shuffling your feet as you wade through the water instead of taking normal steps. The shuffle alerts any rays hiding in the sand that you are near so they can swim off instead of being accidentally stepped on.
- Sharks and rays do not have any bones in their bodies, having a skeleton made up of cartilage instead. This cartilaginous skeleton is strong and durable yet has the advantage of being lighter and more flexible than bone. This not only helps the shark to stay afloat, but also reduces the amount of energy that sharks need to move around.
- Sharks inhabit all the world’s oceans, and some can even be found in freshwater rivers and lakes.
- Fossil evidence shows that sharks have been around for 450 million years. They have evolved into one of the top predators in the ocean. Despite this they still have one threat out there that is greater than anything, HUMANS. Over 30 percent of shark species and relatives that have been assessed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) are currently threatened with extinction.
Shark Discovery spans much of the Aquarium’s second floor and, at the time, was the largest project at the Aquarium since the 2014 opening of the Great Maya Reef. The gallery is located between the penguin and sea otter habitats, across from the seahorse gallery.
Toth added, “Our hope is that by reaching into the touch pool creates a connection, sparking action to protect marine life and the ocean.”
For more information, about the Aquarium’s Shark Discovery visit https://audubonnatureinstitute.org/explore-aquarium/shark-discovery-touchpool.