Though they may look quite different from each other, sharks and rays are very closely related as cartilaginous fish and play a vital role in the ocean’s ecosystem. Just like every other marine organism, sharks and rays have been around for a long time contributing to their oceanic habitat creating an underwater life cycle that not only affects ocean environments, but ours as well. Since these creatures are predators, their jobs are to maintain the balance in the ocean’s ecosystem by regulating the food chain. Without sharks and rays, our phenomenal oceans would not flourish as it is meant to.
Today, we have discovered that there are over 350 species of sharks ranging in shapes and sizes. The idea of the ferocious man-eater which we call the shark is nothing but a common misconception in our society today. Just like many other wild animals, sharks can be dangerous but they should not be considered man-eaters and in fact normally do not attack unless they are provoked to do so. What makes sharks such apex predators, however, is demonstrated by their marvelous adaptations. The replacement of loose teeth truly helps the sharks carry on with their hunting without any hindrances such as broken teeth. Their streamline body which allows them to reach top speeds while swimming. And last but not least, the extra sensory organs which give the shark the upper hand when hunting. One example of their sensory organs is the Ampullae of Lorenzini which allow the shark to detect electrical pulses that all living creatures give off in the water. Another example is the lateral line which is a line of sensory organs down the body of the shark which picks up vibrations in the water given off by struggling fish. These adaptations allow sharks to play an important role our ecosystem.
There are about 600 species of rays in our oceans today and each one of them is vital to the life cycle. Rays have body structures very similar to that of the shark as they are both cartilaginous fish. However, the body shape of stingrays and mobula rays (rays without stinging spines) are very different than the sharks’. The wings of the ray are the most striking features and are useful for the ray to glide through the water with ease. The next most obvious feature of a ray’s body is its long tail which may or may not be accompanied with a stinging spine depending on the species of ray. This spine on the stingrays allows for a means of defense by the animal; however it is not the only defense mechanism the animal has. Being able to disguise itself under the sand on the ocean seabed is another way for a ray to avoid any dangerous threat it may encounter. This technique is also useful for the carnivorous ray to hide and wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by. Very little attacks by stingrays have been recorded though the spines of the stingrays can be quite dangerous if the animal feels threatened.
Sharks in Danger
While we are worrying about the amount of people killed by sharks, it has been estimated that about 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans while sharks kill less than an average of 5 humans each year. How are sharks in danger? Many factors such as over fishing, bycatch, and pollution contribute to the decline in shark populations however the most infamous reason for the killing of sharks is a process called shark finning. In this gruesome process, millions of sharks are caught solely for their fins. The shark fins are used as a delicacy and medicinal item called Shark Fin Soup in many Asian cultures. Shark Fin Soup is in high demand on the market today. Shark finning becomes a dirty and cruel process as the sharks are fished and are stripped of their fins while they are alive. Some fishermen will release the shark to sink to the bottom and die while others will sell the shark meat. In some places, the export of Shark Fin Soup is illegal while the act of shark finning is still legal.
Rays in Danger
All types of rays are susceptible to similar threats as sharks such as over fishing, bycatch, and pollution but some species are in much more danger than others. Mobula rays are by far the most vulnerable today due to the demand for their gills. One of the more famous mobula rays, the manta ray, is being pushed into extinction today as it is being fished and over fished for its gills. Similarly to Shark Fin Soup, the gills of the manta and other mobulas are considered to have medicinal purposes in many Asian cultures, thus, it also has a high demand.
What Can You do to Save Sharks and Rays?
Probably the biggest thing anyone can do to save sharks and rays is to be educated about the problems and share what you know to others. Also, becoming active in organizations that offer help to sharks and rays can be a great way to provide a contribution to these animals. Donating to these organizations can also help the organization raise the funds needed to provide the assistance these sharks and rays need
Ways to Protect Sharks and Rays:
- Educate yourself about them – we should be scared for them
- Support organizations that cares about sharks and rays
- Don’t buy shark and ray products – including fins and meat – keep them off the menu
- Advocate for sharks and rays – sign petitions to support their conservation
- Rally for Marine Protected Areas where all species will be protected.