WASHINGTON (CN) – Fishermen and beachgoers alike have long viewed sharks with something less than admiration, but advances in technology have proven they are deeply valuable, scientists told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Yet that value could be lost if climate change and overfishing continue to threaten the predator and its habitat.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee heard testimony from several scientists about the value of shark research during a Wednesday morning session.
Among them was Dr. Robert Hueter, of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, who said he’s studied sharks for 40 years and that his most satisfying moments have come when he’s gotten to watch people shift from vilifying sharks to appreciating them.
“Now I see people on the coast watching sharks with tags swim by,” Hueter said. “They don’t want to kill them but instead, they’re rooting them on and sometimes, they even [figuratively] adopt them. They understand the shark isn’t looking to eat people but they’re doing what they have done for millions of years. We’re winning the battle [for conservation] and activism is spreading, so it’s very exciting.”
Advances in shark satellite tracking technology have greatly increased the amount of information scientists have at their fingertips, he said. Those advances in the last 25 years have created more access for the average person to learn about sharks intimately.
Educational television programming like Shark Week – which has aired on Discovery Channel for decades – wouldn’t be possible without scientific advancements in the field or through well-funded partnership studies at various ocean research facilities and aquariums throughout the U.S., Hueter and other experts said.
Dr. Al Dove, vice president of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium, told senators investment by the government in grants earmarked for shark studies is a tremendously – and economically – valuable endeavor.
“The ocean is a $24 trillion resource, delivering $500 billion in benefit to humankind annually,” Dove said. “Healthy shark populations play a role in the marine food web but a quarter of all shark species are at risk of extinction through the removal of 100 million sharks per year by fisheries, whether legal or illegal.”
The committee recently passed two pieces of legislation targeting overfishing and improving population management: the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act and the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act.
Both bills present similar benefits for shark stocks through stricter prohibitions on fisherman and shark fin traders, respectively.
Sharks need a healthy habitat in order to survive and as apex predators, or a predator at the top of the food chain, without them, the entire ocean collapses said, Amy Kukulya, the principal investigator and senior engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“If they collapse, the fish under them collapse too. It’s known as a trophic cascade. When you eliminate one level, you have effects that go down the food chain,” she said.
Heuter recalled dwindling shark populations in parts of the Pacific and Caribbean in recent years. The fish sharks fed on became too numerous. Those fish then ate the next species down the chain, nearly wiping them out.
The population that was nearly eradicated was responsible for “mowing the lawn of the reef” Hueter said, and keeping algae at bay.
Sharks are also unlocking new secrets behind breast cancer, Hueter said.
At the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, they have found that shark’s don’t develop disease when exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, unlike most other vertebrae animals.
“Now we’re focusing on shark immune systems and how they can neutralize cancer within their own bodies by creating substances within themselves [made from other] immune cells that stop the growth of a tumor,” Hueter said.
Those “substances” are now being tested against human breast cancer cells. Results so far have shown a stoppage in cancerous cell growth and division.
“But sharks are a non-traditional model. They’re not a mouse or rat,” Heuter said, adding that it takes considerable funding to study sharks and glean information from them over long periods of time and with costly equipment.
Satellite trackers have evolved from the rudimentary plastic tags most people think of and are now sleek, super high tech devices no bigger than the size of a stage microphone. But just one tracker can run an average of $4,000.
The cost to man ships and equip them with the high tech devices necessary is a slow-going process, Heuter said. Most studies are already privately funded but federal investment into organizations like the National Science Foundation or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would go a long way for those researchers who need grant money.
Kukuyla showed senators a clip of great white sharks smelling, touching and at times stalking robotic devices submerged for her studies. Several of the latest cameras can swim alongside sharks for miles.
In one clip, a shark shot up from the deep so suddenly and grabbed hold of a mounted device so violently, lawmakers let out a gasp in the chambers.
Observing shark’s powerful jaws in action is more than about finding the perfect clip for Shark Week, of course, explained Dr. Cheryl Wilga, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Using new underwater x-ray and CT scan technology to watch the inside of shark’s mouth while it eats or chews is helping her develop prosthetics that would last longer and fit better.
“Shark’s jaws are made of cartilage. The more force sharks use to bite down with, the more force they put on cartilage and they stiffer their jaw gets, yet it is still flexible. This is a really interesting concept for things like knee replacement surgery,” Wilga said. “Right now everything is metal and metal makes the surface of everything it touches degrade faster. Sharks could change that [if we learn how to synthesize the cartilage material].”