Thursday, 10 October 2013

Shark Attacks; The Real Story

I grew up in the ‘golden days’ of Miami and the Florida Keys. My teenage friends and I would often return to the wharf with 100 lobsters and we would catch sharks just for fun. The lobsters were good and the sharks were bad in my black and white world of wildlife. We believed there was no end to the supply of either animal.

My interest in sharks was like everyone’s – morbid. A shark attack with photos was front page news and each sparked debate in the dive clubs over the best way to avoid becoming the next victim. I sometimes carried a ‘bang stick’ (a rifle bullet fired from a short hand-held club) thinking I could fight these villains if it came to the worst.

When I started work on the Great Barrier Reef, I got a surprise. The sharks seemed bigger, more numerous, and very brave compared to their Caribbean brothers. Australian shark attacks were front page stories and dominated the news for days.

 Sharks are slow to approach a swimmer under the water.

And yet there I was working for hours every day, year after year within metres of these predators and all I had to do to avoid trouble with the tropical species was respect their territories and not swim around with speared fish on my belt.

The November issue of Conservation Biology published a review of media coverage of sharks. According to Meredith Gore, MSU assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife, Australian and U.S. news articles focused on negative reports featuring sharks and shark attacks instead of conservation efforts. "The most important aspect of this research is that risks from ­- rather than to -- sharks continue to dominate news coverage in large international media markets," said Gore.

So how real is the case against sharks?

 Every year about 100 shark attacks are reported worldwide. In 2011, just 17 fatalities out of 118 attacks were recorded as having being caused by sharks.  Although shark attacks are infrequent, there is a heightened awareness due to occasional serial attacks; “it’s out there and I’m next”. Horror fiction like Jaws (1975) appears on TV just often enough to keep this fear alive and even so-called “nature” shows only show sharks in frenzied feeding

 One of these is the most dangerous killer on Earth; the other is a shark.
Shark attack experts are adamant that the danger has been greatly exaggerated. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), between the years 1580 and 2011 there were 2,463 recorded shark attacks around the world, of which 471 were fatal. Surprisingly, that’s only 1.09 fatalities per year for the last 431 years.

 Australia is ranked second in terms of global shark attacks with 877 attacks since colonial settlement in the 18th century; it’s ranked the highest in terms of shark fatalities, with only 217 during this long period.

The results of Gore’s Michigan State University study found that more than 52 percent of global coverage focused on attacks on people and sharks were portrayed as aggressive and dangerous in nearly 60 percent of the reports. Positive PR was tougher to find with only 10 percent of stories dealing with shark conservation and just 7 percent looking at biology and ecology.

According to Time/ CNN : Zoologists today estimate elephants around the world kill 500 people a year while the great white sharks (Jaws)  kill only 4 people.

Incredibly, there are about 24,000 lightning deaths (one every 20 minutes) and 240,000 lightning injuries annually (Royal Aeronautical Society, 2003). When was the last time we read stories of the lurking danger above or watched a movie where people were struck down like dominoes by searing thunder bolts?

Amazingly, Gore went on to point out that conservation groups were often quoted emphasising negative aspects of sharks and seldom the pressing conservation issues. "This suggests that conservation groups are either not being sought out by the media in regards to shark conservation issues or they are not engaging enough to make headlines," Gore said.

In writing this story I contacted 10 shark advocacy or shark ‘experience’ groups. After making them aware of my support for sharks I asked for additional information or photos in exchange for credit and support for their position. I received some brilliant photos (featured here) through Asian Shark Conservation and by Ellen Cuylaerts who was in the water with Epic Diving. The others have not replied.

Why is shark conservation so important and why is it being neglected?

The first part of this question is easy. Sharks are in big trouble! "Overfishing of sharks is now recognized as a major global conservation concern, with increasing numbers of shark species added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's list of threatened species," say Mizue Hisano, Professor Sean Connolly and Dr William Robbins from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University.

On March 1, 2013, "Global Catches, Exploitation Rates and Rebuilding Options for Sharks," was published by Dr. Worm and other researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of Windsor in Canada, as well as Stony Brook University in New York, Florida International University (FIU) in Miami and the University of Miami. A very powerful team of scientists.

Their shocking findings put the carnage at 97 million in 2010. The possible range of mortality falls between 63 and 273 million annually. This equates to somewhere between 7,200 and 31,000 sharks per hour.

As many as 31,000 sharks are killed every hour.

"In working with tiger sharks, we've seen that if we don't have enough of these predators around, it causes cascading changes in the ecosystem, that trickle all the way down to marine plants." Such changes harm other species, and destroy commercial fisheries, Mike Heithaus, executive director of FIU's School of Environment, Arts and Society explains.

"This is a big concern because the loss of sharks can affect the wider ecosystem," said Heithaus in March, 2013.

Why we are neglecting shark conservation is harder to answer. First, there have been powerful economic reasons to turn a blind eye to shark fishing and shark finning. The shark industry is worth about US$630 million annually according to a study published May 30, 2013 in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation.

This equates to an average of $6.49 per shark. This may not be such a good reason but greed is a characteristic of human behaviour and we make lots of poor decisions because of it.

A second explanation comes from deep in the primitive part of our brains. Our prehistoric ancestors had the very same fears that we do according to Psychology Today. We were ‘designed’ to be afraid; fear was our operating manual for things we didn’t understand or that could do us harm. Fears protect us. “Our distant ancestors who were afraid of heights didn’t fall off cliffs, those that feared wild animals didn’t get eaten, those that ran the fastest left the rest behind---and they survived.” 

Surveys of people show different fears for different cultural groups but amazingly many fears are shared globally even for animals never encountered by the people who fear them. Top of the list is spiders and number 10 are alligators and crocodiles. Sharks come in at number six according to Animal Planet.

Sharks need to treated with caution but they aren't the killers they are made out to be.

Elephants are not on our list of feared animals and we donate millions of dollars each year to protect them even though they kill thirty times more people than sharks do. Why can’t we see that the health of our ocean hangs in the balance and that we are making decisions with our ancestor’s fears and not with our children’s futures in mind?

The first big step in the right direction was taken in July, 2011 when the Bahamas banned all shark fishing in its 630,000 square kilometres of ocean. "The Bahamian government had the foresight to protect - - sharks within their waters, starting with the longline fishing ban in early 90s, and culminating with the more recent shark sanctuary initiative," said Edd Brooks, program manager of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the Cape Eleuthera Institute. "This level of protection is vital for the continued existence of these important apex predators, and I hope that the example set by The Bahamas will encourage other nations to follow suit."

Sharks do injure and kill people as do most other large animals and many other things we all take for granted in everyday life. I’ve spent thousands of hours in the water with sharks and do not see them as my enemy. Until we can deal with sharks honestly in both the media and our own minds we will not be able to protect them and the oceans they swim in.

As shark numbers plummet the ecological stability of the sea is lost and life-sustaining fisheries collapse. What a tragedy to discover we lost such an important battle through our own primitive fears and self deception.


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