“The greatest hazards to nature and biodiversity are driven by human choices and actions,” scientist Holly Booth was quoted as saying in Dr. David Shiffman’s new book, ‘Why Sharks Matter.’
Booth isn’t wrong. Human activities – such as overexploitation, clearing of land for development or farmland, and introducing invasive species – are causing major changes in biological communities worldwide, leading to an alarming decline in biodiversity on both land and in our oceanic ecosystems. Overfishing and unsustainable bycatch numbers are the biggest threats many animals in our oceans face; in fact, more than one-third of the world’s shark and ray species are now facing the threat of extinction due to these threats according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Which is why ‘Why Sharks Matter’ ”comes at such a poignant time.
Shiffman is a marine conservation biologist specializing in the ecology and conservation of sharks. “I’ve been fascinated by sharks as long as my family can remember, and I’ve known for essentially my whole life that I wanted to be a marine biologist who studies them,” he says. “My parents have always supported this crazy ambition of mine, but I suspect they believed that I would grow out of it. Clearly, I never did. ” With his work being cited over 600 times, the Pittsburgh native is an expert in ocean conservation policy (including stakeholder knowledge and attitudes) and shark feeding ecology and behavior. While he has spent much of his time as a marine scientist with sharks, it’s the human side of shark conservation that Shiffman and many researchers featured in his book are turning their attention to.
It has been pointed out for years that sustainability goals and environmental management have failed to consider the human side of conservation – how the decisions made impact the lives of the locals, and how culture, values, and equity affect conservation outcomes. Numerous shark species live in waters near coastal communities where they hold strong cultural value, yet few publications have studied this relationship to understand how local ecosystem management ties into that community’s values. With humans altering climate processes, overall biodiversity, and ecosystem functions, lead author of an article that focuses on key social concepts for sustainability Christina Hicks says it is crucial we consider things from a social science as well as natural science perspective as we push sustainable management forward agendas. “Without attention to whose well-being is measured and the values that underlie goals, we risk exacerbating inequalities and eroding the connections to nature that motivate people to practice stewardship and care for one another,” agreed co-author and researcher Melissa Poe. Shiffman is also onboard with this approach, having highlighted this point of view in the shark science realm for years and now doing so again in his book which takes readers through the ecological significance of these predators, the threats they face, and what actions we can take to help sharks out (whether you’re a scientist, environmentalist, or just someone who really loves them).
But before you read the end of his book, ask yourself this hard question: are humans ready for sharks to be helped? Are humans ready for an ocean with rebounding shark populations (ie more sharks)?
As science-based conservation efforts start to succeed and our human population numbers continue to boom, leading shark scientists suggest we consider changing how we fish, how we use our oceans, and how we manage other species – all of which will require public education and outreach efforts. That is Shiffman’s bread and butter, who is more commonly known as the ‘shark scientist who hates Shark Week,’ for being vocal about the minsinformation the series frequently airs.
Whether this book makes you pause and reflect on your perception of sharks, or teaches you some new facts about these predators, Shiffman hopes he has shed light on the human side of shark conservation through this work.