A quarter of sharks need immediate conservation action, but fear of sharks often overshadows all their important benefits to the world. We need to shift our perception of sharks, and psychology says this needs to start early on.

Sharks have many things going for them. They are evolutionary champions – they were around long before the dinosaurs, and possibly even before trees. They play a crucial role in their ecosystems, to the point of indirectly controlling things as seemingly remote as seagrass! And many things we benefit from on a daily basis are owed to these animals – countless medical, engineering, sporting and other advances have stemmed from our understanding of sharks.

Yet, our fear of these animals often overshadows all their important benefits to our world. This fear also significantly hinders conservation efforts.

Fear can be a really important emotion, having played a prominent role in protecting the human race throughout its existence. While our brains have evolved to the point of being able to calculate statistical probabilities, risks and other conscious mathematical-based analyses, at the end of the day, we still heavily – and often subconsciously – fall back on emotion to guide our actions.

When it comes to sharks, we need to shift our perception of them to something more realistic. And psychology says this needs to start early on.

Don Spencer sings a song about sharks. (English, Years 2 and 3)

Sharks under stress

The conservation of sharks is extremely complex and requires a suite of action across many different areas. But arguably the most important action is changing how we view sharks.

Sharks can be very long-lived, have few young and move widely across the oceans. Together, these factors make sharks inherently vulnerable to exploitation.

There is growing concern for the status of sharks worldwide. In fact, a quarter of sharks are threatened and need immediate conservation action.

Only a third of shark species are considered safe from extinction risk.

The extinction risk to sharks is substantially higher than most other vertebrates. Furthermore, while we’ve heard lots about the plight of various threatened terrestrial species, like rhinos, pangolins and African elephants (among many others), the complexity of conserving sharks is much greater than for any of these species.

Sharks (and their relatives) have many cool features, including bioluminescence, pockets, saws, hammers, barbed spines and electricity. (Image: Unsplash)

Early education is key

Once established, the fear of sharks (and biological predators, in general) is very difficult to supress. For example, the movie Jaws led to a massive spread in the fear of sharks, even for people who’d never been near the ocean before, and it led to the culling of huge numbers of sharks through what were dubbed “monster hunts”.

The best way to minimise the risk of developing fears is through early positive or neutral exposure to sharks – before any negative exposure.

The key with shark education is to ensure the learning is fun, engaging and based on factual information.

This can be quite tricky as there’s so much inaccurate information out there, for example, the concept that sharks continuously and mindlessly attack anything and everything in sight.

But the diversity and long evolutionary history of the group means that shark education can also be surprisingly entertaining – sharks (and their relatives) have many cool features that can be explored: bioluminescence, pockets, saws, hammers, barbed spines, electricity… the list goes on and on.

A well-developed curriculum that helps reduce the fear of sharks in our future generation of leaders and community members – through more realistic representation and a focus on all the good they do – is an important step in the right direction for conserving these incredible, and incredibly important, animals.

Shark education should also include a snippet of beach education, which, in the grand scheme of things, is far more important in terms of safety.

Cristina Zenato caresses sharks in the warm Bahamas waters.

How to teach children about sharks

There are a number of fantastic resources that teachers (and parents!) can use to teach children about sharks. And fortunately, sharks present lots of really fun learning activities.

One of my personal favourites is a trip to a public aquarium. Aquariums are such great teaching tools. Kids will be immersed in knowledge, but most importantly, they will gain a visual image of sharks carrying out their typical behaviour: swimming. For many species, the act of swimming is a requirement for breathing. Seeing this first-hand is hugely valuable.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a public aquarium or have the resources to commit to such excursions. Fortunately, there are a number of organisations that provide marine science incursions, which allow students to get hands-on and really involved from the comfort of their own classroom. Check out Australian Geographic Presents, Ocean Life Education and Dr Suzy Starfish.

Sessions can include show-and-tell with shark artefacts; craft activities; interactive games that demonstrate the role sharks play in the environment; and discussion and activities on an endless number of topics relating to shark biology, threatening factors and conservation. In some cases, shark education programs can even be presented via video conferencing. If you find a program you like, it’s certainly worth asking if this is an option!

Aquariums are great teaching tools, and some organisations provide marine science incursions, allowing students to get involved from the comfort of the classroom. (Image: Pixabay)

Finally, teachers can find valuable online resources and activities that allow them to develop their own shark curriculum.

There are a range of national and international shark education sites that have a myriad of resources, including many of the sites listed above. But also definitely check out Sharks4Kids (which has so many educational tools!) and Sharks and Rays Australia for really cool educational resources on the truly bizarre sawfish. You can also find some educational tools on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.

Australia is such a biodiverse country and indeed a global shark hotspot. Wouldn’t it be fin-tastic to be a global leader in shark education?

Image 1: Unsplash