Sharks not the villain of the sea, man is
The misunderstood monsters of the sea have once again been thrust into the spotlight after the recent incident last month when a surfer died after a shark attack in Gracetown, Western Australia. Despite this, experts say man does more damage to sharks rather than what we are led to believe in popular culture. Audrey Lee dives in the deep end to investigate.
Beneath the first blush of an early September predawn light, a fierce wind lashed the sullen, logy waves, stirring up a blast of fresh salt air that consumed me. The loud droning of the engines interrupted the tranquility of the untamed sea as our speedboat jetted across the ocean just off the coast of Gansbaai in South Africa.
With 15 others onboard this 11-metre catamaran, we were on an expedition most would call a ‘reckless’ one. The one animal we fear most was the one we were hoping to meet that morning: the great white shark.
Buckets of diluted rancid minced fish parts, tuna blood and oil, or otherwise called chum, were tossed into the water from the stern. The bristling breath of the sea was engulfed by a long, unbroken trail of this malodorous concoction, snaking its way towards the horizon. The sharks’ sense of smell is so sensitive it can detect even a single drop of blood in the water up to 5 kilometres away.
The boat finally came to a complete standstill and we found ourselves stranded in the beasts’ lair. The choppy waves shook the boat like a rag doll, with the surrounding waters turning crimson from the chum. The cold wind blew harshly, cutting my face like piercing needles. The ocean was a sepulcher. Still raring to go, I climbed into a large cage that was fixed to the starboard at water level. The icy water restricted my legs a little, but I continued to tread to stay warm, as I waited anxiously with bated breath. All other eyes on deck were kept peeled for that familiar triangular fin that might break the water surface.
It wasn’t long before a fellow member cried out in a keening falsetto. My heart began to race. Most would scurry to shore at the sound of that word, but I put on my snorkel and ducked underwater. The three-metre shark lunged towards a chunk of tuna carcass attached to a line next to where I was. Its huge jaws exposed, baring row upon row of deadly serrated teeth. Its formidable tail was thrashing around wildly, churning up sea bubbles and impairing my vision.
As the bubbles soon began to clear, the shark had already devoured its prey in a matter of seconds. Overwhelmed with a feeling of awe, I edged in closer, instantly captivated by the animal’s majestic performance. The shark glided gracefully towards the cage, its large, unblinking black eyes fixated onto mine. With only so much of a couple of steel bars separating us, I was centimetres from it. I was almost certain that the shark could easily wrench the bars out and attack me if it wanted to. But it didn’t. Like an inquisitive child, I saw a flickering light within its barely visible dark pupils, as it gazed upon me. Unthinkably, the great white disappeared abruptly into the murkiness. The most feared predator on earth… was afraid of me.
The ocean covers about two thirds of the world’s surface and is home to over 80 per cent of life on Earth. The first sharks are known to have lived in the ocean for more than 400 million years, about 150 million years before the age of the dinosaurs. When all other life on Earth was wiped out, sharks have managed to survive five major mass extinctions.
They are the apex predators in the marine environment, helping to maintain the proportional balance of various marine species in the ecosystem. They control the populations below them, essentially eliminating weaker species and thus, creating new ones.
Sharks are known to have terrorised the hearts of people, many of whom are victims of traditional misconceptions and beliefs portrayed by the media. Steven Spielberg’s fear-provoking classic movie, Jaws, released in 1975 is a prime example.
“Jaws was a completely unrealistic and over-dramatised portrayal of the great white shark,” Rebecca Davis, founder of Save Our Sharks Australia, says of the film. “Unfortunately, the fear it instilled into people who saw the movie has continued to influence generation upon generation.”
Even Peter Benchley, the late author of the novel Jaws, wrote an article in 1995 titled “Misunderstood Monsters”, admitting to the damage his book has done to the reputation of sharks.
“I couldn’t write “Jaws” today”, he wrote. “The extensive new knowledge of sharks would make it impossible for me to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.”
Scientists and experts have long tried to debunk the myth that sharks are mindless killing machines. Dr. Demian Chapman, a research scientist currently based in Peru from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and head of the Institute’s Shark Research Program, is one such expert.
Growing up in New Zealand, Dr Chapman spent most of his childhood on the beach. Like most children, he was fearful of sharks, but became fascinated with them and was “hooked” by the time he realised they were not the “monsters” he perceived them to be.
His fieldwork involves the studying of shark reproduction and behavioural patterns, and he has found them to be amazingly tame.
“I’ve been near thousands and thousands of sharks,” he says. “All the ones that people are very afraid of, and I’ve never been bitten by any of those. In fact, I’ve been bitten more by my dog than sharks.”
According to a statistical study conducted by Taronga Conservation Society Australia, there have only been 52 human fatalities due to shark attack, in Australia in the last 50 years. The last fatal attack happened to actress, Marcia Hathaway, at Sydney Harbour in 1963.
Michael Skoletsky, Executive Director of Shark Savers, says of death from shark bites is usually caused by blood loss. When a shark does bite a person, he claims, “it’s extremely rare that it would bite a person twice”.
“Sharks don’t have arms so sometimes the only way for them to tell or to taste whether something is food is by taking a bite, and they have big mouths,” says Skoletsky.
Upon hearing my shark cage diving experience, Skoletsky says the only reason the shark approached the cage was because of the chum.
“That shark probably would not have wanted to come near you if they weren’t attracting the shark, and they had to work pretty hard at that. They may be chumming long before you got into the cage. So that shows you that the sharks are not there to eat you.”
Albeit sharks are often seen as the “bad guys,” Dr Chapman argues that in reality, “we [humans] are the bad guys because we kill more of them”.
Research has shown precipitous declines in many shark species. Michael Aw, founding director of OceanNEnvironment and a shark expert, estimates over 100 million sharks are killed each year, where 26 to 73 million sharks are killed purely for their fins. As a result, over one-third of the shark species are classified as endangered or threatened by extinction under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
Shark finning is a common practice where fishermen would pull a shark on deck and slice off its fins while it is often still alive. The rest of the shark is then thrown back into the sea to die either by bleeding to death or suffocation. As shark meat is relatively inexpensive and less profitable, their fins are primarily the reason behind this lucrative industry.
According to Dr Chapman, there is about 20 to 25 species of sharks that make up the fin trade, such as Whale Shark, Mako, Hammerhead, Thresher Shark and Grey Nurse. Putting it simply – the larger the fin, the higher the price. According to Dr Chapman, as far as species that are highly valued, such as the Hammerheads, their fins possess certain “characteristics that the fin traders and consumers find desirable, and can fetch up to $140 per kilogram of hammerhead fins.”
Depleted shark populations are hard to rehabilitate, because as Skoletsky puts it, “sharks have very slow reproduction rate, there’s no way for them to reproduce quickly enough to overcome the fishing.” An average shark can take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity and even then produces only two to three pups a year.
“Shark populations may take decades to recover, if they are given a chance to, or may never recover if this slaughter continues,” Skoletsky says.
However, there are currently no international laws protecting sharks, as most of the oceans are not within the jurisdiction of any one country. At the conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held this March in Doha, Qatar, four species of sharks, including the Hammerheads, were up for consideration in their endangered list. Unfortunately, Japan opposed this move.
“The Japanese are extremely active in lobbying against these proposals and using what influence they have to get other countries to vote the same way. It was very disheartening. The sharks came very close, which just goes to show that a majority of countries do recognise this problem and are willing to deal with it. But it’s this handful of countries that are blocking it, simply because they are making a lot of money out of it,” Dr Chapman says of the Japanese at that meeting.
“And also what’s important to note is that the proposals that were up were not to ban trade in shark fins of these species. It was just to monitor the trade in this species. Just to monitor. Which is ludicrous.”
To date, only 17 countries including the European Union (EU) have laws against shark finning, and Australia is one of them. In most of these cases where the practice of shark finning is prohibited, fishermen would have to land the entire shark and not just their fins.
Australia also has regulations that protect some shark species such as the Great White and the Grey Nurse shark and has limit fishermen to a certain quota per year. Nonetheless, sharks are still allowed to be fished and fins are exported overseas.
There are nations that have banned shark fishing altogether. This May, Hawaii became the first US state to have passed a complete ban on all types of shark fin commerce. Not only are fishermen not allowed to fin sharks, landing or marketing shark fin is also strictly prohibited.
In September 2009, Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary and banned all shark-fishing activities in its waters. Early this year, Maldives banned shark fishing within a restricted zone that covers 90,000 square kilometres of water. Instead, both Palau and Maldives rely heavily on tourism for economic survival.