As Ocean Predators Recover, Humans Need to Learn to Coexist

It’s great that sharks, whales, and sea otters are bouncing back in some marine areas. But it may also increase human-wildlife conflicts.
November 22, 2018, 1:00pm
Scuba divers encounter a silky shark off the coast of Florida. Image: NOAA​
Scuba divers encounter a silky shark off the coast of Florida. Image: NOAA

Iconic ocean predators like sharks and sea otters have been pushed to the brink of extinction by humans. Fortunately, conservation efforts over the past few decades have slowed—and in some cases, reversed—this trend in some areas. This is encouraging, but it also raises a new question: Are humans ready to share oceans teeming with predators again?

Ana Sofia Guerra, a PhD student in ecology at UC Santa Barbara, explored this issue in a study published this month in Marine Policy. Titled “Wolves of the Sea,” the paper looks to the history of predator management and anticipates new conflicts that could arise between humans and rebounding populations of ocean predators.

“There’s a big reason that we’ve wiped [some predators] out,” Guerra told me over the phone. “Some of them happened to be delicious, but a lot of it is because they cause problems. Sometimes, we’ve wiped out predators because they weren’t convenient. It would be, to say the least, a major bummer to have put all this effort into bringing these species back to have it collapse again because we couldn’t manage the issue that was there in the first place.”

Conflicts between commercial fisheries and conservationists show that the debates sparked by recovering land predators—like North American wolves—are coming to the ocean. Marine predators compete with fisheries for food, and inflict commercial losses that will become more substantial as conservation efforts gain traction. Whales, sharks, and otters pilfer catch from nets, long-lines, and aquafarms, and often damage fishing equipment, costing the industry tens of millions of dollars annually.

“Some of the wildlife causing these economic losses for fisheries are sharks, but a lot are animals that we have grown to love in a public way: Whales, sea lions, and all these charismatic megafauna,” Guerra pointed out. “It’s not something a lot of people in the fisheries industry get a lot of support for, when they say: ‘This whale that you all love also ate all my fish.’”

One potential way to manage this problem is to implement some of the tactics that have worked on land—for instance, establishing government programs that reimburse businesses for predation losses. Land predator conflicts have also benefited from investments in public outreach and discussion.

The need to raise awareness of the effects of rising predator populations extends far beyond fisheries. People who recreationally swim, fish, or explore the ocean will also have adjust to the reality of growing predator populations. Guerra uses the analogy of “bear country,” a term that effectively communicates to visitors that they are not the only apex predator in that landscape.

“We never call the ocean ‘shark water’ or something along those lines,” she said. “We kind of assume ownership over the ocean and get unsettled by the fact that we’re not the top predator in it.”

Read More: Can Sharks Survive Humans?

That perception will have to change, especially in light of recent upticks in great white shark sightings in places like California. Once demonized as Jaws-style monsters, these sharks have become more widely appreciated by for their general awesomeness and beneficial effects as keystone predators.

This newfound goodwill could be precarious, however, if human-shark interactions—including attacks—increase as a result both of recovering shark populations and growing numbers of humans entering the ocean.

“California is known for having good surf, and surfers tend to be really great environmental stewards,” Guerra told me. “But how is that going to change when sharing the ocean with the predator that you’re advocating for means maybe it’s not okay for you to go in the water? If we succeed in bringing these animals back, what will it take for us to actually learn how to share again?”

Ultimately, foresight, education, and strong policies will be necessary to ease the transition from predator-deprived habitats back to thriving ecosystems.

“We still have a long way to go to figure out how to solve this. and how to prepare for something that could get a lot more pressing as these species continue to recover and as we continue to want to fish and recreate in the ocean,” Guerra said.

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