We owe sharks an apology.
Spielberg’s Jaws came out in 1975 and gave audiences nightmares. Between that, Sharknado, Deep Blue Sea and many other titles are jammed in the revolving door of scary shark films that have come out since. Sharks have long since earned a terrible reputation as monstrous, blood-thirsty, bullies of the ocean. Few people have sympathy for these diverse creatures– when in reality, they really aren’t even remotely who we think they are… and many species are sadly being hunted and reduced by the human population–putting them at-risk.
Sharks, for years, have been targeted as enemies, threats, and ingredients for “Fin Soup“. Shark “finning”, a form of animal torture and hunting are very common and threaten their populations at alarming rates. According to an article on National Geographic,
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world, a number that far exceeds what many populations need to recover.
Many sharks also frequently get their mouths caught in fishing hooks, which can severely harm them and in some cases, impair their ability to hunt and survive.
These populations are continually under siege and they’re reproduction rates are staggering. As mentioned in a Daily Mail article, a study found that an estimated 38% of tiger sharks were found to have fishing hooks in their mouths as well as fishing lines in their bodies that can stay for up to 7 years. These injuries can cause severe disfigurement.
Why Should We Care? Aren’t They Supervillains?
Well, actually they aren’t and most often than not, we’re misinformed. On the contrary, sharks are hugely mistreated.
According to the Florida Museum, the number of shark attacks/bites recorded annually is under 100 making these encounters quite rare. This is nothing compared to the 100 million sharks that are killed and maimed annually.
In general, people are not desirable prey due to our anatomy, whereas other aquatic species are far more desirable to sharks as they don’t possess as many bones to chew through.
As with all animals, no one is advised to approach wild species in their element. Nevertheless, sharks don’t necessarily have a target on the backs of humans. Most “attacks” involved them becoming increasingly curious. Researchers believe that they use circling and biting to appraise the value of an object or creature to gain information on it in the same way that dogs use their sense of smell.
While their bites are fatal and it is paramount that a shark be redirected by divers who investigate them, they aren’t necessarily intended to be an attack. In cases of attacks, provocation could be contingent on sharks mistaking humans for seals. Other theories include sharks wanting to create distance when they feel that their personal space is being encroached upon. They’re bite could also be a communication tactic to signal us to get out of their vicinity.
But Aren’t They The Apex Predators of the Ocean?
Alas: This too is false information.
Sharks are limited in mobility due to their vertical tail fins and also have incredibly sensitive heads.
Often, they are portrayed as the blood thirsty apex predators of the ocean due to media and their menacing appearance. In actuality, they, much like whales even, are hunted by orcas (also known as killer whales–named for their history of hunting whales). Orcas are not only the apex predators of the ocean, but have been known to roam in packs and play with their food before feasting. This well known fact among ocean inhabitants is why sharks are deeply fearful and easily spooked by the presence of an orca in the area.
As an article on BBC points out, they can be both “social and solitary”, but they are typically known to “do their own thing”. This often means that when it comes to sustaining themselves, they generally hunt on their own. This makes them easy targets for orcas, who travel in synchronized groups and know how to strategically work together to trap and paralyze them.
While lemon sharks might get together for brunch and gossip, makos and hammer heads, for example, might be a little bit lonely and misunderstood in the aquatic cafeteria.
Does That Mean That Sharks Are Safe?
Well, not quite. You wouldn’t run up to a person and try to force physical contact.
Unless you’re a trained diver, leave sharks alone… along with any aquatic animal that isn’t as obviously open or sociable like a dolphin. It is not necessarily that they are unfriendly, but that we ought to exercise caution, understand the rules of engagement, and respect the natural habitat.
Some species have actually socialized and engaged with professional divers whom they’ve had years to warm up to. Such was the case with professional diver, Jim Abernethy who frequently visited a group of tiger sharks while coordinating diving tours and eventually developed a friendship that has lasted over a decade with a large tiger shark. He claims that “the gentle giant”, Emma, frequently looks for him and spends time with him, even able to tell him apart from other divers in spite of changing his suit. He compares her frequent nuzzling to that of a Labrador.
What Else Don’t I Know?
They’re actually really integral to the ecosystem of the ocean. Based on their hunting practices they keep the ocean in balance. Please note that if sharks were to go extinct, this would wreak havoc on marine life so it is all the more critical that we better understand them and combat shark hunting.
Some species of shark that scavenge dead animals actually remove carbon as well, inadvertently fighting climate change.
To Sum Up
We owe these mysterious animals an apology… and probably some space. Hopefully, as marine conservation efforts are heard and Shark Week continues to be successful in educating people about the strange world of this remarkable species, more people will eventually come to respect their habitat and wellbeing.
To protect sharks from finning, click The Humane Society International to donate.