Shark & Ray Awareness Day: Heroes of the Sea 

Published July 9, 2024

Sharks and rays are some of the most misunderstood animals, yet they play a crucial role in maintaining the balance and health of our oceans. Their importance is often overlooked because of their portrayal in cinema and media, but the mission to protect them is more important than ever! July 14 is Shark & Ray Awareness Day – a global event dedicated to educating people about the significance of these cartilaginous creatures. The multitude of ecosystems throughout the vast blue seas depend on these keystone species who contribute to thriving, diverse, marine environments. 

Due to their migration patterns and ram ventilation, several sharks and ray species are constantly moving through the oceans. Their ability to travel great distances in all directions is purposeful and many species depend on their endeavors for food and nutrients. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphate are key nutrients dispersed throughout the oceans as they hunt and migrate.

When sharks and rays consume dead fish and animals, they recycle carbon. After digestion, it reenters habitats as waste. The transport of nutrient-rich fertilizer and bacteria is consumed by the marine life in the habitats it reaches. Food consumed in one ecosystem can be excreted into another that lies miles away, allowing habitats to obtain missing nutrients. Sharks are known to be messy eaters, which gives feeding opportunities to smaller fish as they feast on the scraps that fall from a shark’s meal.  

As much as they provide for species, they also prevent species from dominating various oceanic habitats. Sharks are feared, not just by humans, but by marine life. Tiger sharks patrol seagrass beds which ward off sea turtles. This behavior benefits the ocean because seagrass serves as a water purifier by trapping carbon-rich sediments, absorbing nutrients, and oxygenating oxygen through photosynthesis. 

The benefit of sharks and rays consuming sick, dying, and old animals, is they help to reduce infectious diseases and the spread of them. By controlling the spread of illnesses and parasites, they ensure that populations stay healthy and continue to thrive! 

Sharks assist in regulating mid-size predator populations which helps small reef fish who are easily targeted. As top apex predators, sharks keep other predatory populations contained to prevent an imbalance of predators and prey. Small reef fish are vital for coral reef health, caring for them like a gardener maintains their garden.

Coral reef residents aren’t just offered security but food opportunities. As rays instead of stingrays vigorously flap their winged pectoral fins while foraging for prey, they stir up the nutrient-rich sand and food scraps. The hefty clouds of sediment are why fish tend to linger around them as they hunt because they know they will most likely get a snack out the rays’ efforts. They know how to work smarter, not harder! Not only do nearby fish and organisms benefit from this, but the current whisks the lingering food and nutrients out to distant habitats.

Sharks and rays have a significant purpose in our oceans. Over the decades, they have been severely impacted by overfishing, which is deemed the greatest threat to these animals. Since the 1970s, shark and ray populations have declined by 71%, and it is estimated that between 1990 and 2018, global fish consumption rose by 122%. This demand has opened the door to more intensive fishing methods which wreak havoc on marine life. 

Sharks have a slow reproduction rate, and their numbers are quickly declining. It is imperative that people intervene and provide a future for these incredible creatures. Here are some ways you can help protect sharks!

  • Avoid single-use plastic and buy products in plastic-free packaging, 
  • Choose sustainably sourced seafood (e.g. MSc certified – the Marine Stewardship Council certifies that a product has been fished in a sustainable and well-managed manner), 
  • Choose reputable eco-tour operators who support protected areas that keep sharks, rays, and other marine life safe, 
  • Share your knowledge and passion for ocean conservation with friends and family!

Wonders of Wildlife is proud to partake in conservation efforts to help these important species. In August 2022, eight bonnethead shark pups were born. Our dedicated team took measures to ensure they grew to be healthy and happy. Bonnet heads are social animals, typically clustered in groups of two to three.

They are the only known species of shark to be omnivorous, meaning they eat both plant and animals. They are also extremely difficult to raise in captivity since they travel long distances in the ocean. Our aquarium successfully did and as a result, we partnered with Kansas City Zoo’s Sobela Ocean Aquarium, SEA LIFE Kansas City Aquarium, and two other AZA accredited facilities in Missouri. Each of the facilities received a few of our bonnet heads. Our team’s findings were shared so they could conduct their own bonnet head conservation programs and research to help this endangered species.

Partnerships like this help educate people – aquarists and the public – about these magnificent animals and many more! We are passionate about coming alongside other facilities and the local community to help make a difference in conservation and the future of wildlife. When you visit us, you can get up-close to some of the ocean’s most misunderstood animals. From sand tiger, brown, and bonnet head sharks to southern, reticulate whipray, and cownose rays, Wonders of Wildlife is excited to show you the wonders of wildlife and inspire you to help conserve the outdoors!