I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Sharks are in need of an image makeover. They are not nearly as big a threat to human life as they are often portrayed to be. In fact, the danger is the other way round; humans are destroying an animal that regulates life in the oceans.
The Jersey Shore Attacks
An unusual episode of shark behaviour took place during the first two weeks of July 1916, and it started the public's irrational fear of these top predators.
A brutal heat wave had settled along the eastern seaboard, and swimmers were in the Atlantic to cool off. Charles Vansant, 25, was in the water when he was attacked by a shark. He was pulled ashore, but succumbed to his injuries. Five days later, Charles Bruder, 27, had his legs bitten off. Then, 10-year-old Lester Stilwell was killed by a shark, and a man who went to look for his body was also attacked and died.
These attacks were very unusual because sharks rarely go after humans.
News of the events reached the White House and President Woodrow Wilson promised federal aid to “drive away all the ferocious man-eating sharks which have been making prey of bathers.”
President Wilson was ahead of the scientific community. Although little was known about sharks in 1916 it was widely believed that they did not and could not kill a human. But, the Jersey shore attacks taught everybody to be very afraid of sharks even though the likelihood of becoming a victim is extremely low.
Grossly Distorted Media View of Sharks
Mention the word shark today, especially to someone swimming in warm tropical water, and the reaction will be rapid and dramatic. But, the person heading for the beach faster than you can say “Jaws” is operating on false information.
Sharks are not very interested in people as a lunch item. As far as sharks are concerned humans are the menu equivalent of overcooked Brussels sprouts.
The Canadian Shark Research Laboratory (CSRL) points out that, “Of the more than 350 species of shark in the world’s oceans only a handful of them are even considered dangerous to humans … Overall, the chance of being attacked by a shark is considerably less than that of being hit by lightning or of being eaten by a crocodile.”
The International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida notes that “The 2016 yearly total of 81 unprovoked attacks was on par with our most recent five-year (2011-2015) average of 82 incidents annually.” Of these, just four proved fatal; this out of the total of 55.3 million people who die every year from all causes.
The National Ski Areas Association reported in 2012 that “During the past 10 years, about 41.5 people have died skiing/snowboarding per year on average.” And, that’s just in the United States. But, few people harbour a great fear of buckling on skis.
On the other side of the ledger, sharks have good reason to fear humans. National Geographic’s Nicholas Bakalar covered a study carried out by the United Kingdom’s Imperial College London: “… researchers concluded that from 1996 to 2000, 26 to 73 million sharks were traded yearly. The annual median for the period was 38 million.” Obviously, if traded, the animals were dead.
There’s a blood-chilling scene in the 2008 documentary Sharkwater. It’s not the depiction of a swimmer being bitten in half by a great white. It’s not even a shot of a feeding frenzy as a dead seal is tossed into the ocean.
It’s the sight of a shark being hauled onto the deck of a Chinese fishing vessel, having its fins hacked away, and then being thrown back into the water still alive.
What happens next is described by the environmental group Stop Shark Finning: “The sharks either starve to death, are eaten alive by other fish, or drown (if they are not in constant movement their gills cannot extract oxygen from the water). Shark fins are being ‘harvested’ in ever greater numbers to feed the growing demand for shark-fin soup, an Asian ‘delicacy.’ ”
Shark-fin soup is considered a symbol of prosperity and the giver of good health in China. It is usually only served at weddings and luxury business banquets. Several American states have banned the sale of shark fin soup as have some other jurisdictions around the world.
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Decimation of Shark Population
In June 2009, Bloomberg News reported that “Great whites, hammerheads, and a third of deep-sea sharks and rays face extinction as the world’s fishing fleets haul them in for their meat and fins.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature announced in 2014 that “A quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction …”
The folks at the Save our Seas Foundation offer the following figures: “It is estimated that 96.1% of all threats posed to shark populations stem from fishing (57.9% by-catch, 31.7% directed commercial fishing, 5.8% artisanal, and 0.7% recreational), with habitat destruction and pollution comprising 2.9%, and 0.4% of threats respectively.”
Top Predator in a Complex System
Perhaps the most important characteristic of sharks is that they are what’s called “top predators.” Their position in the marine food web is vital to the health of the entire system.
“Big fish eat little fish; that’s how the food cycle works. Of course, there’s more to it than that.” That’s the way Tony Corey with Dave Beutel describe the balance in The Marine Food Web in which it’s explained that each level in the food chain, from phytoplankton to top predators, is intimately dependent on the other levels.
Remove one level from the chain and the whole structure is threatened.
Effect of Losing Sharks
While studying the effect of species loss in oceans is difficult, some information is known. Ransom Myers and colleagues published a paper in Science in March 2007 covering a loss of sharks off the coast of North Carolina.
The blacktip sharks were over-fished so much that there was a population explosion among the rays on which they fed. The numerous rays preyed on scallops and reduced their numbers so dramatically that the commercial fishery collapsed. The scallop fishery may never recover, destroying the livelihoods of local people.
Fishers in other areas of the world have reported a large increase in seals, a favourite food for sharks. The seals feed on herring, cod, flounder, and many other species that sustain commercial fisheries. Without sharks to keep the number of seals under control humans will lose an important food source.
Below is a clip from a documentary about a man who is trying to rehabilitate the image of sharks. However, his thesis is somewhat undermined by a commentary referring to "the deadliest predators on the planet" (actually, that would be humans) or "the deadliest shark of all." As long as that kind of language is used in connection with sharks they will always be unjustly feared and destroyed.
- The only sharks that are likely to attack humans are the great white, bull, and tiger sharks.
- According to The National Geographic, “93% of shark attacks from 1580 to 2010 worldwide were on males.”
- Hermann Oelrichs (1850-1906) was an American millionaire with a firm belief that sharks are harmless. In 1891, he offered a $500 (worth about $12,000 in today’s money) to anyone who could prove that sharks would attack humans along the Atlantic coast. (He did not stipulate whether or not the prize could be claimed posthumously). He even put his theory to the test by jumping into the water with a shark at his seaside home. The fish swam away. It’s theorized it was startled by the splash.
- “ISAF 2016 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary.” University of Florida, January 2017.
- “38 Million Sharks Killed for Fins Annually, Experts Estimate.” Nicholas Bakalar, National Geographic, October 12, 2006.
- “A Quarter of Sharks and Rays Threatened with Extinction.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature, January 21, 2014.
- “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” Matt McCall, National Geographic, June 30, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Lion on March 31, 2017:
Great article - fascinating
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 27, 2017:
I'm not an apologist for sharks, but the statistics don't lie; unless you believe scientific studies are fake news.
MariRogers on March 27, 2017:
Shark apologists will say anything in defense of the creature they love, no matter how misleading.