(July 28, 2019 / JNS) “Shark Week,” television’s longest-running, and most anticipated summer event, returns on July 28 with the Discovery Channel continuing its 31-year, week-long TV programming dedicated to these fascinating creatures that swim the international seas.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely shark-inspired tales of recent history, Israel’s coast has become a rather unusual habitat for the ocean’s most notorious predator.
Eyal Bigal, a marine ecologist at the University of Haifa’s Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, talks about what’s behind this unlikely phenomenon and how it’s allowing Israel to become an improbable hub for Mediterranean shark research.
Q: Has Israel become a new habitat for sharks?
A: The Mediterranean is one of the most dangerous environments for sharks. Over the last 60 to 70 years, we’ve lost 95 percent of the population. In recent years, however, Israel has become an unlikely home for the sharks during the winter months. What’s been fascinating is that the sharks have been aggregating around the country’s coastal power stations, perhaps due to the higher temperatures, creating a jacuzzi effect near the plants.
Because sharks aren’t kosher, they’re not being fished for, and we’ve created somewhat of a safe haven for them.
Q: What has this migration enabled us to learn?
A: There’s not been any shark research done in the Eastern Mediterranean, so with the sharks now being so accessible to us, it really is such a unique phenomenon. We’re utilizing the aggregation of the sharks to learn more about them during the six months of the year that they’re on Israel’s coasts, generally from November to May. Through techniques such as tagging, we’ve already determined that some of the same sharks are coming back each year; so far, we’ve tagged around 50 sharks.
Q: How can we protect this endangered species?
A: We need much more research before we begin playing around with their environment. There are consequences to everything we do, and we can see that from sharks being drawn to power stations here in Israel. We need to establish marine protected areas that restrict human activity and protect their natural resources.
Q: Is Israel (unknowingly) doing its part to help them?
A: Without realizing, Israel is actually doing a lot to help. Because sharks aren’t kosher, they’re not being fished for, and we’ve created somewhat of a safe haven for them, unlike in many nearby regions. That said, I wouldn’t say that we’ve witnessed an increase in shark numbers, and the fact that they are drawn to human-altered habitats may not indicate a positive trend at all. Also, this is still one of the most nutrient-poor regions in world and thus very surprising that top marine predators been coming here in large numbers.
Q: Let’s cut to the chase: Are sharks dangerous?
A: People swim with the sharks here in Israel, and they’ve never bitten anyone, but at the end of the day, they’re large wild animals that are potentially dangerous. Perhaps it’s wrong, though, to think of the sharks as “them.” They are individuals that have different personality traits. Some are likely to be more comfortable around us than others.