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A diver was killed by a great white in Australia last week. You’ve probably heard of the attack, it was covered in all the major news outlets. This was the third fatal shark attack off the west coast of Australia in two months.

These attacks reinforce our impression of sharks as deadly man-eaters. And while the media coverage is appropriate, it has the effect of deepening our resentment of sharks. This is unfortunate because sharks are far more an asset to man than a danger, and we need to be supporting measures to protect sharks from human predation.

Sharks are at the top of the marine food chain. They keep prey populations in control by feeding on older and weaker fish, and this keeps the prey population healthy and in the proper proportion for their ecosystem. Sharks serve as vital regulators of marine species across the world’s oceans.

Conservationists estimate that about 73 million sharks are killed each year mainly to provide fins for ‘shark fin’ soup, and they fear that the uncontrolled and illegal fishing of sharks will drive 30 percent of shark species to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s classification of threatened or near threatened with extinction.

‘Shark sanctuaries’

One shark conservation measure gathering momentum is the establishment of ‘shark sanctuaries’ which place sharks and rays off-limits to fishing, ‘finning’ or commercial activities which degrade shark habitat.

A shark sanctuary established two years ago in Palau has had success in preventing shark species decline. Mexico, a major fishing nation, is following suit by setting aside what is to be the world’s largest sanctuary for sharks and rays. The Maldives and the Marshall Islands have smaller sanctuaries in place. A representative from the Federated States of Micronesia said his nation would likely announce a new shark sanctuary soon.

Representatives of Honduras and Colombia say they are pursuing similar initiatives, including a possible protective corridor for sharks stretching from Colombia’s Pacific coast to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

Shark conservation measures are also underway in the US. Environmentalists have won a series of new protections for sharks this year, arguing that the predators have been decimated by indiscriminate industrial fishing and fishing for their fins. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a shark fin ban this month, joining Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, enacted a similar ban recently.

Sharks have been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years. While they have survived mass extinction events, sharks have not evolved to withstand overexploitation by humans.

Reconciling the dangers sharks pose to swimmers and divers with the vital role they play in the marine ecosystem will always be difficult. Our understanding of the vital role sharks play in the health of marine ecosystems is key to preventing the needless waste of this most valuable marine resource.