By Chuck Handy —
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with a fear of sharks. In my mind they were all voracious eaters of human beings. There is just something about the way I was brought up that made it all true in my mind. So the first time I went on a shark dive when the critters were being actively fed while I was in the water watching them, I had to wonder about my own sanity. Would they not go into a frenzy and just tear up any and everything that was near them in the water? And what the hell was I doing there, anyway?
I am preparing to do a shark dive tomorrow with a school of Hammerhead sharks. Some will be as many as four meters long. Needless to say, my galeophobia has diminished over time… I actually look forward to time spent in the water with most sharks.
Sharks are one of the top marine predators and as such have performed a vital service to the marine environment for thousands of years. It is only in recent times that sharks have been threatened by the supreme predator on the planet Earth, humankind. Fear of sharks lead many people to kill sharks indiscriminately, significantly reducing some shark populations.
Industrial/commercial fishing methods have also led to a huge decline in shark populations, and an almost mystical quest for virility and longevity has led to a taste for shark fin soup in some parts of the world. Shark fin soup requires only the dried fins of the shark, so the fins are hacked off the living shark and the rest of the shark is returned, maimed and dying, to the sea.
Let’s face reality… How many shark attacks are reported annually? Approximately 100 attacks occur annually worldwide, with around five of them being fatal. However, like a Brown bear attack on a human, shark attacks get huge airtime. Many more humans are killed by war, disease, and traffic accidents than are threatened by sharks.
Most sharks are relatively docile and some, like the Nurse shark, don’t even have teeth. I will still get out of the water if I see a Great white or a Tiger shark cruising by. Bull sharks give me the willies, too.
Great whites account for most of the attacks on humans every year. The coast of California is known for them as are Australia and South Africa. The favorite food of the Great white is seals and they munch them down with abandon. Many Great white attacks on humans are on surfers and divers dressed in black wet suits. What do you think that looks like to a Great white? You got it. Seal meat. The majority of human victims receive a shark bite, rather than being killed or eaten, possibly because they are confused for seals.
I have been cruising the far Western North and South Pacific islands for the past five years in my sailboat and have visited many small Micronesian, Polynesian, and Melanesian island groups in that time.
This part of the world accounts for most of the tuna you see on the shelves in stores. This tuna is caught primarily by huge purse seiners that take the whole school of tuna and its associated by-catch, including sharks, porpoises, turtles, and even manta rays. Nothing is returned to the ocean alive. Long line fishing vessels target Big eye and Yellowfin tuna and catch a large number of sharks as well.
Normally these sharks have been killed mostly for their fins; however, in recent years there has been a move toward shark-free zones. The Republic of the Marshall Islands and the island nation of Palau have gone so far as to fine any vessel found in their waters carrying shark fins or shark meat, whether those sharks were caught in their waters or not. The reason why is simple economics. It has been proven that the sharks in their waters are more valuable alive than dead. Eco-tourists, of which divers make up a large percentage, will pay big bucks to see sharks swimming around. The economic argument includes the money these tourists spend, not only on diving, but on plane tickets, hotels, restaurants, and sightseeing as well.
Our view of sharks is changing. They are not all the awful creatures that the movie “Jaws” made us think they are. They are an important part of the marine ecosystem and deserve a certain amount of respect and we should be concerned for their welfare.
When you hear people talking about shark attacks, think not of the attacks by sharks on humans, but the attacks on sharks by humans. It’s time to change our thinking about sharks….
Chuck Handy lives aboard his sailboat and is a sailor, a diver, and a fisherman. He is currently cruising in the Western Pacific both north and south of the equator. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org