Although still abundant at Cocos Island and other relatively pristine sites, grey reef sharks are susceptible to localized depletion due to their slow reproductive rate, specific habitat requirements, and tendency to stay within a certain area. The IUCN has assessed the grey reef shark as Near Threatened; this shark is taken by multispecies fisheries in many parts of its range and used for various products such as shark fin soup and fishmeal. Another threat is the continuing degradation of coral reefs from human development. There is evidence of substantial declines in some populations. Anderson et al. (1998) reported, in the Chagos Archipelago, grey reef shark numbers in 1996 had fallen to 14% of 1970s levels. Robbins et al. (2006) found grey reef shark populations in Great Barrier Reef fishing zones had declined by 97% compared to no-entry zones (boats are not allowed). In addition, no-take zones (boats are allowed but fishing is prohibited) had the same levels of depletion as fishing zones, illustrating the severe effect of poaching. Projections suggested the shark population would fall to 0.1% of pre-exploitation levels within 20 years without additional conservation measures. One possible avenue for conservation is ecotourism, as grey reef sharks are suitable for shark-watching ventures, and profitable diving sites now enjoy protection in many countries, such as the Maldives.
Grey reef sharks were the first shark species known to perform a threat display, a stereotypical behavior warning that it is prepared to attack. The display involves a "hunched" posture with characteristically dropped pectoral fins, and an exaggerated, side-to-side swimming motion. Grey reef sharks often do so if they are followed or cornered by divers to indicate they perceive a threat. This species has been responsible for a number of attacks on humans, so should be treated with caution, especially if they begin to display. They are caught in many fisheries and are susceptible to local population depletion due to their low reproduction rate and limited dispersal. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed this species as Near Threatened.
The grey reef shark has a streamlined, moderately stout body with a long, blunt snout and large, round eyes. The upper and lower jaws each have 13 or 14 teeth (usually 14 in the upper and 13 in the lower). The upper teeth are triangular with slanted cusps, while the bottom teeth have narrower, erect cusps. The tooth serrations are larger in the upper jaw than in the lower. The first dorsal fin is medium-sized, and there is no ridge running between it and the second dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are narrow and falcate (sickle-shaped).
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The Caribbean reef shark infrequently attacks humans. In general, a shark attack on a human is behaviorally similar to an attack upon natural prey. A human is more susceptible to being attacked if the shark is cornered and feels that there is no escape route. In situations like these, the shark may rake the victim during the attack resulting in lacerations.
Socially, they are mostly loners unless living in a threatening ecosystem. These are the first and the only species of sharks that are known to “sleep” on the ocean floor or within reef caves. It is believed that these sharks are not actually sleeping but merely resting. These sharks have actually been given the nickname “sleeping sharks” because of their habit of lying motionless at the sea bottom. This is a somewhat unusual and unique behavior of these sharks.
The snout is rather short, broad, and rounded, without prominent flaps of skin beside the nostrils. The eyes are large and circular, with nictitating membranes (protective third eyelids). There are 11–13 tooth rows in either half of both jaws. The teeth have broad bases, serrated edges, and narrow cusps; the front 2–4 teeth on each side are erect and the others increasingly oblique. The five pairs of gill slits are moderately long, with the third gill slit over the origin of the pectoral fins. The first dorsal fin is high and falcate (sickle-shaped). There is a low interdorsal ridge running behind it to the second dorsal fin, which is relatively large with a short free rear tip. The origin of the first dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the free rear tips of the pectoral fins, and that of the second dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the anal fin. The pectoral fins are long and narrow, tapering to a point. The dermal denticles are closely spaced and overlapping, each with five (sometimes seven in large individuals) horizontal low ridges leading to marginal teeth.
The "hunch" threat display of the grey reef shark is the most pronounced and well-known agonistic display (a display directed towards competitors or threats) of any shark. Investigations of this behavior have been focused on the reaction of sharks to approaching divers, some of which have culminated in attacks. The display consists of the shark raising its snout, dropping its pectoral fins, arching its back, and curving its body laterally. While holding this posture, the shark swims with a stiff, exaggerated side-to-side motion, sometimes combined with rolls or figure-8 loops. The intensity of the display increases if the shark is more closely approached or if obstacles are blocking its escape routes, such as landmarks or other sharks. If the diver persists, the shark will either retreat or launch a rapid open-mouthed attack, slashing with its upper teeth.
This species is taken by commercial and artisanal longline and gillnet fisheries throughout its range. It is valued for meat, leather, liver oil and fishmeal. The Caribbean reef shark is the most common shark landed in Colombia (accounting for 39% of the longline catch by occurrence), where it is utilized for its fins, oil and jaws (sold for ornamental purposes). In Belize, this species is mainly caught as bycatch on hook-and-line intended for groupers and snappers; the fins are sold to the lucrative Asian market and the meat sold in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala to make "panades", a tortilla-like confection. A dedicated shark fishery operated in Belize from the mid-1900s to the early 1990s, until catches of all species saw dramatic declines. The flesh of this species may contain high levels of methylmercury and other heavy metals.
Ancient reefs buried within stratigraphic sections are of considerable interest to geologists because they provide paleo-environmental information about the location in Earth's history. In addition, reef structures within a sequence of sedimentary rocks provide a discontinuity which may serve as a trap or conduit for fossil fuels or mineralizing fluids to form petroleum or ore deposits.