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The Most Important Fish In The Sea
By Matt J. Weiss, February 7, 2008 @ 02:00 AM (EST)
Source: Nwf.org
WEARING SHORTS and wet suit booties, marine ecologist Charles “Pete” Peterson wades carefully through a bed of sea grass looking for scallops. This shallow bay on North Carolina’s Outer Banks was once studded with the animals—colonies so dense “you couldn’t set a foot down without stepping on three of them,” he says. But on this July morning, Peterson searches for an hour and finds only two.

The rest have been wiped out by ravenous bands of cownose rays that are swarming the Outer Banks in record numbers, says Peterson, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences. Not long ago, sharks would have eaten many of the rays before they could plunder the scallops’ beds. But today, large sharks are rarely found here. “This is what happens when species like the ray are released from their controls and allowed to have a population boom,” says Peterson, surveying the ruined scallop beds, still lifeless despite a three-year effort to restore them by closing the fishery. “It shows why we should all care about what happens to the apex predators of the sea.”

What has happened, in fact, is a global collapse of great shark populations worse than any in the known history of these ancient predators. Since the 1960s, nearly all large shark species have suffered steep declines—in some cases by more than 99 percent—due to overfishing and wasteful seafood harvesting practices by humans, the only species that has managed to usurp the shark’s place at the top of the food chain. Along the U.S. East Coast, some once-dominant species, including dusky, tiger and scalloped hammerhead sharks, are now considered “functionally extinct,” says Julia Baum, a marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and coauthor with Peterson of a recent study documenting the far-reaching effects of the predators’ decline. “The loss of sharks is triggering changes that cascade through the food web.”

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