There Are Other Sharks in the Sea

Shark Week has been running for 28 years, and yet so many endangered sharks are still waiting for their close-up.

Great white shark

Credit: Photo Elias Levy/Flickr

I’ve been patiently waiting for a great white shark to separate my legs from my torso since my parents let me watch Jaws back in the early 1990s. The ocean, murky ponds, pools at night, suspiciously deep puddles—all these are the potential scenes for my gulping demise. Even now, just about any patch of dark water triggers a fight-or-flight reflex that I, as a rational adult, must work to suppress.

I do not fear bull sharks. Hammerheads, makos, and tigers likewise do not faze me. No, it is the great white that always haunts my imagination; it is the great white that will someday, somehow bisect me. It will be the first such attack Pittsburgh will ever see.

All of which is to say that I understand why Discovery Channel’s 28th annual Shark Week is made up of mostly of great white shark programming.

Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, Island of the Mega Shark, Bride of Jaws, Return of the Great White Serial Killer—Shark Week’s schedule is full of the breaching beast. Great whites leaping, great whites eating, great whites chomping and gnashing and great white–ing so hard, it’s easy to forget other sharks even exist.

Of course, that’s part of the problem.

“It’s always amazing to see a 15-foot fish breach out of the water in HD on my big screen,” says David Shiffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Miami studying shark ecology and conservation. “But there are more than 500 species of shark, and the ones that people have heard of are the ones that people care about, and that leads to conservation pressure and research funding.”

A few quick searches on Google Scholar back this up. Choosing 1988, the year Shark Week debuted, as a start date, I looked up how many scientific studies had been published on some of the most popular shark species. Tiger sharks: 2,780. Hammerheads: 2,130. Bull sharks: 2,620.

Great whites lead the pack with 4,010.

Study numbers are far from conclusive evidence that watching great whites fly through the air leads to funding, but public awareness is unquestionably valuable. Take the dusky shark, one of the species featured below: 1,630 studies since 1988. Or the angel shark, a sea floor lounger with essentially no PR: just 581 studies.

And it’s not that these species don’t need or deserve some attention—a full quarter of all shark, skate, and ray species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The beloved great white is on there, too, but the list is also rife with shark species that don’t get their own week of dedicated programming. Here are a few of my favorites.

Whale Sharks (Vulnerable)

Credit: Photo: Justin Henry/Flickr

These spotted behemoths can grow to 40 feet long, migrate up to 5,000 miles to give birth, and subsist entirely on plankton and roe. Remind me again why the whale shark isn’t shoved down the throat of every kidnergartener in America?

I’m serious. Our whole perception of sharks is based on the orgy of blood and the biting with the teeth and the “hey, hey, hey, it hurts me.” Shark attacks of any kind are exceedingly rare. Even the gap-toothed great whites of my nightmares only “nibble” on humans occasionally. You’re far more likely to be injured by a toilet (see "A Short Sampling of Things More Likely to Kill You Than Sharks," below). And whale sharks? These guys are the biggest dang sharks we’ve got—and among the most peaceful.

So peaceful, in fact, that a whole slew of human terrors have filmed themselves riding, surfing, and otherwise harassing them. People, this is why we can’t have nice things. According to the World Wildlife Fund, whale sharks are also victims of unregulated fisheries where they are sought for their meat, oil, and fins.

Frilled Sharks (Near Threatened)

Mario Sánchez Bueno/Flickr
Credit: Photo: Mario Sánchez Bueno/Flickr

Frilled sharks live more than 5,000 feet below sea level, a depth well past where sunlight can penetrate. That we only caught our first glimpse of this species alive in its own habitat as recently as 2004 is no coincidence.

Most of the frilled shark’s history is a mystery, but there is evidence to suggest that the females have the longest gestational period of any vertebrate—up to 42 months, or 3.5 years. That means the frilled shark is pregnant longer than the average NFL player’s career, and the species has impressive offensive skills to boot. Boasting a huge liver that helps keep the animals naturally buoyant, frilled sharks, scientists believe, hover in the water column, waiting to lunge at their squid and octopus prey like a rattlesnake striking a squirrel. Teeth that look like caterpillars made out of needles ensure there’s no escape for those cephalopods.

No one seems to be specifically targeting frilled sharks yet, but the species is under threat from various fishing methods—namely trawling, longlines, and deep-set gillnets—that inadvertently catch and kill bottom dwellers and midwater species.

Dusky Sharks (Vulnerable)

Credit: Photo: Steve Garner/Wikimedia Commons

So maybe gentle giants and toothy float-and-strikers aren’t your thing. How about the dusky shark, a 12-foot, 400-pound carnivore with the most powerful bite of any shark?

Oh yeah, did I mention duskies might hunt in packs in order to take down bigger prey, like humpback whale calves? (Warning: photos of nature doing its best “red in tooth and claw” thing here.)

Duskies can be found all over, along the coasts of North and South America, East Africa, the Mediterranean, China, and Australia. The IUCN lists dusky sharks as vulnerable globally, but their Atlantic population has declined by at least 80 percent since the 1970s.

Though the United States officially banned commercial and recreational fishing for duskies in 2000, their numbers have only now begun to recover, and just barely. This is likely due to the shark’s low reproductive rate, one of the slowest of any shark. Duskies live up to half a century but don’t reproduce until they’re 20 and then only give birth every one to three years.

According to stats on the U.S. Federal Register, America’s dusky population will take around 400 years to recover at its current rate. Shiffman points out that this is much, much longer than the register or the federal government has even existed. In other words, the odds aren’t great.

River Sharks (Critically Endangered)

Credit: Photo: Bill Harrison/Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of dismal prospects, the Ganges and New Guinea river sharks are both critically endangered. As is the Irrawaddy river shark, though even that listing seems generous considering the only known specimen was collected back in 1896 in Myanmar (then Burma).

We know surprisingly little about any of these sharks, which would probably make a weeklong television event pretty speculative. (Of course, Shark Week has included plenty of speculation in years past.)

But, Discovery, there’s plenty for viewers to love here, too. When we think of sharks, we envision dorsal fins slicing through coral reefs and open oceans. Yet the river sharks swim some of the gloomiest, most polluted waters on earth. And it’s freshwater, or fresh(ish), at that!

Bull sharks, which many mistake Ganges sharks for, are infamous for finding their way up rivers. But unlike the bull, the Ganges lives almost exclusively in freshwater.

I want a special about that. And I don’t mean that horrible Lou Diamond Phillips vehicle, Red Water. Don’t even talk to me about that steaming pile of chum.

Angel Sharks (Vulnerable to Critically Endangered)

Credit: Photo: Ryo Sato/Wikimedia Commons

There are 23 known species of angel sharks (genus: Squatina), 11 of which you can find on the IUCN’s Red List. Three are critically endangered.

Like the peaceful plankton eaters, angel sharks push the boundaries of what’s normally considered sharkdom. These guys can be flat as a pancake and are more likely to be found buried under the sand and mud than bursting out of the waves in pursuit of seal sashimi.

Even though they’re bottom-feeders, angel sharks can get pretty big. Females from one of the critically endangered species, Squatina squatina, can reach almost eight feet in length. Imagine swimming along the sea floor and seeing one of those rear up out of the mud.

Luckily, angel sharks much prefer to eat lobsters, crabs, or fish. They pose almost no threat to humans unless you seriously mess with them. This, though, is true for almost every shark species. So, again, don’t mess with them!

But we do. Trawling is a major killer of the angel sharks, since these nets indiscriminately drag up anything that lives near the ocean floor.

Everything Else

Tasselled wobbegong shark
Credit: Photo: Elias Levy/Flickr

Give me tasselled wobbegongs (near threatened) with their camouflage spots and threshers (vulnerable) with that crazy, comic-book-villain tail. I want basking sharks (vulnerable) with mouths like whoa and the sharpnose sevengill (near threatened) with its huge, fluorescent green eyes.

While we’re at it, how about a week on rays and skates? Many of those lesser-known elasmobranches are hurting, too, and in need of some public exposure. And what about sawfish—those crazy-faced ray cousins whose numbers are so low, they’ve apparently started reproducing by virgin birth.

“Honestly, my dream Shark Week would be pretty similar to what they’re already doing with the Alien Sharks series,” says Shiffman who spends each Shark Week critiquing the validity of each show. (Note: Shark Week is way better with Shiffman’s companion tweets.)

Alien Sharks aired Monday night and included glimpses of many of the species mentioned above. But for most of the rest of the week, it’s back to the same ol’ great white grind.

A Short Sampling of Things More Likely to Kill You Than Sharks

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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