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Although there are no active reef shark fisheries in the US Pacific, the reef sharks' disappearance could be caused by recreational fishing or illegal shark finning, which, combined, kill 26 million to 73 million sharks each year. Another possible explanation is that the reef sharks are starving. Their food sources, including coral reef fishes, are decreasing in number because of habitat destruction and human exploitation, and could be taking the sharks with them.
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.
Are there so few reef sharks because of human activities such as fishing and finning, or were there never very many to start with? To answer this question, a team of marine biologists (which did not include Friedlander) decided to count reef sharks at coral reefs close and far to human settlements to better understand how humans impact their populations.
Living in warm shallow waters often near coral reefs in the Western Atlantic, from Florida to Brazil, the Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi) is the most abundant shark in the Caribbean. It feeds mostly on bony fishes and rarely attacks humans. Despite the shark's abundance in some regions, it has a high mortality rate from bycatch and is sought by commercial fisheries for its fins and meat. It is illegal to catch Caribbean reef sharks in U.S. waters. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species' status as "Near Threatened."
The grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, sometimes misspelled amblyrhynchus or amblyrhinchos) is a species of requiem shark, in the family Carcharhinidae. One of the most common reef sharks in the Indo-Pacific, it is found as far east as Easter Island and as far west as South Africa. This species is most often seen in shallow water near the drop-offs of coral reefs. The grey reef shark has the typical "reef shark" shape, with a broad, round snout and large eyes. This species can be distinguished from similar species by the plain or white-tipped first dorsal fin, the dark tips on the other fins, the broad, black rear margin on the tail fin, and the lack of a ridge between the dorsal fins. Most individuals are less than 1.9 m (6.2 ft) long.
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The small shark is named for its distinct black-tipped fins. Not to be confused with the blacktip shark, a larger species with similar fin coloration, the blacktip reef shark can be found in shallow inshore waters throughout the Indo-Pacific, including coral reefs, reef flats and near drop offs. It may be seen in mangrove areas and even freshwater environments near to shore, moving in and out with the tide. The blacktip reef shark feeds primarily on fish, including many common reef fishes, but will also consume crustaceans, mollusks, and even snakes!
Based on morphological similarities, Jack Garrick in 1982 grouped this species with the bignose shark (C. altimus) and the sandbar shark (C. plumbeus), while Leonard Compagno in 1988 placed it as the sister species of the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos). A phylogenetic analysis based on allozyme data, published by Gavin Naylor in 1992, indicated that the Caribbean reef shark is the sister taxon to a clade formed by the Galapagos shark (C. galapagensis), dusky shark (C. obscurus), oceanic whitetip shark (C. longimanus), and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). However, more work is required to fully resolve the interrelationships within Carcharhinus.
But another potential cause is that these sharks are skittish around people. So when too many people move into the area, the reef sharks flee to other coral reefs. Indeed, the researchers found far more sharks at small, isolated reefs than they expected. But this in itself is a danger to the reef sharks. With so many sharks concentrated in a small area, “if you really wanted to, you could fish out a few hundred sharks very easily,” said Friedlander.
Off Enewetak, grey reef sharks exhibit different social behaviors on different parts of the reef. Sharks tend to be solitary on shallower reefs and pinnacles. Near reef drop-offs, loose aggregations of five to 20 sharks form in the morning and grow in number throughout the day before dispersing at night. In level areas, sharks form polarized schools (all swimming in the same direction) of around 30 individuals near the sea bottom, arranging themselves parallel to each other or slowly swimming in circles. Most individuals within polarized schools are females, and the formation of these schools has been theorized to relate to mating or pupping.