Sharks -- They're so much more than 'Jaws' (and they desperately need our help)

The 30th annual Shark Week kicks off Sunday on the Discovery Channel, with eight days of programming about creatures that have long fascinated our imaginations. There’s no better time to remember that there’s much more to sharks than the frightening undersea villains we so often see portrayed in works of fiction.

Yes, we’ve all seen the movies. The signature razor-sharp teeth, suspenseful music and murky underwater shots of one of the ocean’s mightiest predators quickly approaching its prey.

While sharks are often portrayed as the antiheroes of our waterways, these animals play a critical role in helping maintain healthy ocean ecosystems. Sharks act as natural predators to keep marine populations in check, eating sick and weak prey to help improve the gene pool for stronger, healthier generations.

After sharks were seriously overfished around Australia, for instance, the octopus population increased dramatically and preyed heavily on spiny lobsters – decreasing the crustacean population and causing hardship to local lobster fishermen.

Sharks act as natural predators to keep marine populations in check, eating sick and weak prey to help improve the gene pool for stronger, healthier generations.

While sharks are a natural – and vital – ocean predator, we often overlook the serious threats humans can pose to this species. An estimated 100 million-plus sharks are killed in the global shark fishery each year, and according to the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI). And up to 73 million of them are killed annually for the fin trade alone.

In this often gruesome practice, fishermen remove the shark’s fins and dump the sharks back into the ocean – rendering them helpless and leaving them as food for other predators or to die of suffocation. This inhumane practice is prohibited by U.S. federal and state laws, but global demand continues to fuel the over-exploitation of sharks.

The fin trade isn’t the only threat from humans sharks face. Like most marine species, sharks can become entangled in fishing lines and netting, which can cause severe injuries and even death without prompt intervention.

Sharks are also at risk from the growing amount of trash in our oceans; plastic bags, beverage containers and other garbage can kill sharks – and their prey – when ingested.

While the situation for sharks is increasingly dire, the problem is not without a solution. For years, SeaWorld and GHRI have worked side-by-side to increase scientific understanding of the issues facing these incredible fish and their habitats.

By tagging and tracking sharks in our oceans, we’re beginning to understand where sharks travel, which habitats they utilize and how their migrations intersect with fisheries. These joint projects have helped make significant advances.

One recent GHRI study highlights findings that the shortfin mako fishing mortality rate is 10 times higher than previously reported – a discovery that has helped the U.S. approve enhanced protections for the shark species.

Data from GHRI’s shark-tagging missions on multiple species around the world lives on its public tracking website, so anyone can keep up with tagged sharks’ latest locations – including several SeaWorld namesakes – and feel empowered to learn more about shark migrations, habitats and conservation.

Other leaders in this space are also helping make strides in preserving sharks for years to come. To combat the shark fin trade and its impact on the white shark, one of the most widely protected sharks in the world, SeaWorld is working alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to monitor the health of sharks.

OCEARCH, another SeaWorld partner, provides an essential research platform to aid the study of white sharks. OCEARCH leads global expeditions to tag sharks and displays their tracks through its Global Shark Tracker – providing access to previously unattainable information, and inspiring current and future generations of scientists and stewards of the ocean.

As we celebrate Shark Week, we must all keep in mind that it’s not up to any one government, organization or research center to protect the sharks in our oceans. It is the responsibility of all of us to stand up, support research and advocate for our ocean’s predators.

We encourage you to take the first step: explore the GHRI tracking website, visit a SeaWorld park or other accredited aquariums, learn more about other shark conservation organizations like OCEARCH and WCS and the New York Aquarium. Knowledge is power, and the sharks across our oceans need our collective knowledge and help to survive.

Dr. Guy Harvey is a marine wildlife scientist, conservationist, artist and founder of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University.