~Why the survival of the human race may depend on the acceptance that the ocean’s top predator, the shark, is neither the commodity nor the threat we think ~
Written by Lauren Wills
They are one of man’s most feared enemies; vilified in film, demonised by the media, and the stuff of surfers’ nightmares. But beyond their presence in the minds of men, they have reigned in the oceans for more than 400 million years, predating the age of dinosaurs by 200 million years, surviving silently through five mass extinctions, and upholding the most fundamental ecosystem on this planet.
Their value unknown, or underappreciated, by most of the world’s population, sharks are unable to shake the damning public perception that has proliferated their image. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws did little to help the case, grossly exaggerating – even fabricating – the ‘devilish’ qualities of these fish. But fictional portrayals cannot be entirely blamed. In reality, these pre-historic creatures are undeniably intimidating to the human eye. The largest known species of shark, C. megalodon, though now extinct, was capable of reaching around 60 feet in length; today’s favourite villain, the great white, can reach 20 feet; the whale shark can grow to 40 feet.
And yet, of more than 400 known species of shark, there are only three responsible for double-digit numbers of human fatalities – and even these are not quite as they seem. Whatever the media may lead us to believe, sharks do not ‘hunt’ humans; they do not attack to kill.
Evolving millions of years before humans even came into existence, sharks simply do not include humans on their dinner-time menu. They may be opportunistic feeders, but opt for smaller fish, invertebrates, seals and sealions, and not nearby swimmers. It has become clear to researchers that shark attacks are almost always accidental, and whenever an attack occurs, a theme – or rather, trigger – is clear: curiosity.
With humans non-native to the water, sharks become confused when they see us floating on the surface. And, like any other intelligent being, they like to investigate. Just as a human baby puts everything it can find in its mouth, just as a child touches anything it doesn’t yet understand – a shark bites.
Almost all of shark accidents involve superficial wounds, because sharks are not biting to injure, let alone kill; they are biting to feel and explore. Shark bites are ‘exploratory bites,’ as the curious sea creatures use their only means possible to understand alien objects in their territory. A shark’s mouth is merely the hand of a human reaching out to feel an unfamiliar texture. Indeed, even in fatal cases, death is usually caused by loss of blood, and not being ‘eaten to death.’
While humansintentionally kill and eat sharks, this behaviour is not reciprocated. Instead, though it may beggar belief for Spielberg fans, the main similarities between humans and sharks are the ability to build meaningful relationships, to think strategically, and to feel pain.
Sharks are the most misunderstood creatures on this planet – and are being driven to extinction because of this.
According to Sea Shepherd, as many as 100 million sharks are killed for their meat and fins every single year. And then there are the sharks hunted for sport, and the sharks unintentionally killed by trawler fishing, line fishing, and ghost fishing. Twelve years ago, the late conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart released his first documentary stating the desperate need to protect sharks. In Sharkwater, Stewart uncovered how humans have depleted shark populations by an immense, and inexcusable, ninety percent within the last forty years alone.
But what of it?
To land-roamers, the diminution of shark populations may seem sad – at best – and generally inconsequential. But far from inconsequential, research has proven that the diminishing numbers of sharks has colossal cascading effects throughout the ocean’s ecosystem – which provides 60 percent of oxygen on Earth – significantly affecting all life on land.
Sharks, dominating the ocean’s food chain, are critical for managing fish populations, and the entirety of the species sitting below them in the chain. When shark populations diminish, more fish survive – more fish than the levels of plankton, their prey, can cope with. Plankton are important because they consume carbon dioxide and convert it into sugars for producing tissue and energy, and influence the exchange of gases between the atmosphere and the sea. Indirectly then, sharks are needed to ensure the plankton populations exist to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; sharks are the guardians of this ecosystem.
And this is not their only role. As apex predators, sharks are essential to the evolution of other ocean creatures and maintain the diversity of species found in our seas. Sharks also control their prey’s spatial habitat. As this affects the feeding habits of other species, sharks, in turn, maintain both seagrass and coral reef habitats. Thus, as shark populations have diminished, so too have our treasured coral reefs and seagrass beds.
This is our responsibility to address.
Sharks reach sexual maturity anywhere between 12 and 15 years, and birth only one or two pups at a time, making it virtually impossible for sharks to recover their populations to natural (human-free) levels. Sharks need our help. And it is us causing their declining populations, hunting them for their fins, flesh, teeth, treating them merely as a commodity of food, medicine, a trophy. On the basis that sharks are involved in roughly six human fatalities a year, humans justify the mass slaughter of millions of sharks – one of the planet’s most ancient species – every year.
In killing a creature we’ve considered a threat, in slaughtering these ‘beasts’ to protect ourselves, we’re killing the ecosystem on which we depend to survive. It’s time for our attitudes toward sharks to change, because, simply put, humans depend on sharks – our most feared ‘predator’ – to exist.