Worried About Shark Attacks? The Sharks are the Ones That Should be Scared

With Shark Week drawing to a close, the ocean’s top predator is swimming through many Americans’ minds. But even if you haven’t been tuned in to the Discovery Channel, you might have heard that there were 79 shark attacks in 2010, up 25 percent from the year before.

That’s not quite correct. There were actually millions of shark attacks last year. In all but those 79, the sharks were the victims.

We’ve all heard that the chances of getting bitten, not to mention eaten, by a shark are extremely low, as humans are not sharks’ normal prey. But it only takes a few horror stories (and a blockbuster film or two) to make us fear and loathe the cartilaginous hunters.

The truth is that sharks have much more reason to be afraid of us. Worldwide, less than 10 people per year die from shark attacks, while between 20 million and 100 million sharks are killed by humans. Some sharks are killed for sport, but most are killed for profit, the fins being especially valuable. As renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains in her book The World is Blue, 

In 1980, designated as the “Year of the Ocean” in the United States, a perverse but well-intended campaign was intiiated at NOAA to help fishermen by developing markets for sharks as “underutilized species” and by fostering new connections to Asian consumers. In two decades, fears about man-eating sharks shifted to man…eating sharks….

For centuries, soup made from the fins of sharks has been a traditional but rare treat in China, the primary attraction being the difficultury of obtaining the vital ingredients…. By the end of the 20th century, however, new wealth in Asia and new means of finding, catching, and marketing sharks made shark-fin soup much more commonplace.

Because shark fins are in higher demand than meat, fishermen haul their catches on deck, slice the fins off, and throw the still-living sharks overboard. As many as 73 million sharks die each year from this practice.

Shark finning is illegal in the U.S., but a loophole allows shark fins to be imported into California. Ocean Conservancy, NRDC, and other conservation groups are campaigning for a bill to ban the trade of shark fins–you can sign the petition here, even if you don’t live in California. Change.org also has a petition asking Food Network to stop featuring recipes that include shark meat.

Sharks have survived for 400 million years, but humans may manage to wipe them out in a geological heartbeat. About a third of shark species are endangered, with some populations declining 90 percent in recent years. And any ecologist will tell you that eliminating top predators can have a disastrous effect on an ecosystem.

Of course, sharks aren’t the only fish in trouble. After decades of irresponsible fishing, we are beginning to realize that the ocean does not have an infinite capacity to restore wildlife. In 2003, nearly a third of marine fisheries were in a state of collapse, and research indicates that the remaining stocks could be gone within 50 years.

Entire books have been written on the causes and impacts of this decline, but the solutions are not out of reach. In your daily life, you can choose to buy sustainable seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide will help you with that). On a political level, you can join the effort to restore the oceans–for example, Mission Blue, founded by the brilliant Ms. Earle, is working to establish marine protected areas, or “hope spots.”

We named our planet Earth because that’s where our species dwells, but it would be more accurate to call it Ocean. We hear a lot about saving the earth; now we need a new worldwide effort to save the seas. Sharks are a good place to begin.

And if we can save the oceans, we just might save the humans in the process.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

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