BALTIMORE - Dangerous, 9-foot sharks are in the waters of the Washington area.
Fortunately, they're isolated and under constant observation.
The National Aquarium's locations in D.C. and Baltimore serve as a clearinghouse for shark-related information. They provide an opportunity for visitors to see a variety of species up close and for staff to conduct research on their in-house specimens.
In the wake of shark-killing fury spurred on by the 1975 movie "Jaws," the aquarium also serves as a repository for information about a misunderstood beast that is critical to the entire marine ecosystem.
"They're designed to be predators, that's what they're good at," says Alan Henningsen, fishes research specialist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He explains that parts of the nation, such as California and Florida, witness higher incidence of shark attacks due to greater numbers of people in the water and a larger variety of sharks. Beaches along the coasts in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have fewer of all of these factors.
Still, sharks carry a stigma that they are "mindless killing machines," he says.
"Part of what we try to do is dispel those myths," he says. "They are predators and they have very important functions."
Henningsen took WTOP on a behind-the-scenes tour of a shark and sawfish feeding at the National Aquarium's Baltimore location. Check out video and pictures in the gallery at right. Some species at the aquarium still exist in regional waters.
The sawfish, however, used to be found off regional beaches on occasion, but its population suffered due to commercial fishing. This member of the ray family has a toothy snout -- used to spear fish and for self-defense -- which was often entangled in fishing nets. Instead of untangling them, fishermen usually would opt to cut the snouts off and leave them for dead, Henningsen says, causing their numbers to dwindle. See a video of the sawfish feeding in the gallery at right.
Learn more about how sharks contribute to oceans and rivers here.
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