Sharks: They're Gonna Need A Bigger (PR) Boat

BlogHer Original Post

While last week's fatal shark attack on a kiteboard surfer in Florida is being called a "freak accident" by local media, mankind's abrupt re-entry into the food chain is never good for the offending beast. Sharks have long suffered bad PR and 201 shark species (out of 440) are now on the endangered list. If ever a 420 million-year-old citizen needed a good publicist, Sherman would be it.

A typical example: When "Jaws" premiered in the summer of 1975, my beau (19 at the time), got together with some buddies in New England and stayed up all night hunting and killing a shark … with a 12-gauge shotgun. They hung it upside down and posed for a photo, which ran in the local paper, celebrating them as heroes. ("It was the summer of discontent," he explains, "I'm lucky only a shark died."

Meanwhile, on the other coast … "Jaws" was my first R-rated film, and it made me suddenly suspicious of all open water - including toilets! Very inconvenient in a beach town.  After the fact, "Jaws" author Peter Benchley later stated that he would not have written the original novel had he known what sharks are really like in the wild.

Perhaps to make up for it, Benchley went on to write, "Shark Trouble," a nonfiction book about shark behavior, and "Shark Life," another nonfiction book describing his dives with sharks. Clearly, Benchley had some guilt around the book and resulting film - the very first modern-day blockbuster - and what they did to forever sully the shark's reputation.

"I know now that the mythic monster I created was largely a fiction."

--Peter Benchley, author of "Jaws"

So, let's get the facts straight: The International Shark Attack File lists 1,032 documented shark attacks in the U.S.since 1690. Of these, just 50 were fatal. (Florida is the global leader in shark attacks.) Meanwhile, there were 33 fatal dog attacks in the U.S. in 2007. Man's best friend, in turns out, has more of a taste for human flesh than the "bloodthirsty" shark.

Adding to the problem is the Asian delicacy of Shark Fin Soup, which requires only the fins - the rest of the animal is wasted. Approximately 38 million sharks are killed every year for this dish and when Chinese New Year kicks off on Sunday, the soup will be featured in many a fire-cracking celebration.

Once the sharks are caught and their fins removed, their bodies are tossed back into the sea, usually still alive. Unable to swim, the shark slowly sinks toward the bottom where it is eaten alive by other fish. (Here's a video demonstrating the shark finning practice - not pretty.) Thankfully, shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters but alas, this is not where the problem exists.

"The shark-fin industry, concentrated in a few Asian trading centers, is secretive and wary of any attempts to regulate, or even investigate, its practices. To make matters murkier, most fisheries-management groups give little attention to sharks, because they are often considered bycatch—fish caught by accident—given their low value per pound."

--National Geographic

In my early 20s, I ordered shark filet with some regularity but I no longer see it offered on menus. This might be because the FDA believes that mercury levels in sharks is one of the highest among marine fishes - up to 70 times higher than that of salmon, sardines or oysters. (Pregnant women and kids should not eat shark.) Yet another reason to keep them at a respectable distance.

For film buffs, check out the 2007 documentary by Canadian Rob Stewart, "Sharkwater." I have yet to see it, but the film has won numerous awards and the trailer looks powerful. Evidently, Stewart takes a long, hard and dangerous look at international shark fishing and mankind's general disregard for this elegant creature.

Speaking of docs ... DO check out the 2:40-minute trailer for the bizarre documentary, "Gimme A Hug"  by Geert Droppers. By chance, I saw it at an environmental film festival, and the imagery will blow your mind, possibly changing your perception of sharks forever. The film demonstrates the phenomenon known as "tonic immobility", which involves rubbing shark noses and putting them into a trance. (Hey, I have a spot like that too!)

Fact is, humans relate to animals that are huggable. Not a lot of porcupines, hyenas or warthogs on Cute Overload. "Gimme A Hug" shows a female diver in a full kevlar suit demonstrating tonic immobility, and it looks very much like serious underwater cuddling, which it could very well be. I'm hoping the film will fluffen up the shark's bully image.

If a being is capable of snuggling, it makes it harder to kill - so goes the human brain. And while I don't recommend we all start hugging sharks, I would like to suggest that we leave them alone.


Singaporean Skeptic ends up with a hot debate in the comments section with several thoughts on extinction as a natural process and the hypocrisy of the West:

"Eating certain animals or animal parts is not immoral. If you believe that eating shark's fin is immoral then you should be self consistent and not eat pork or beef as well. This is an example of our dietary habits conforming to western 'morality.'"

A fascinating post on ScubaBlog about yet another thing we are taking from sharks - their livers:

"Endangered deepwater sharks, like the gulper shark, are being systematically targeted due to the rich store of squalene in their livers. This substance is being used to make an adjuvant, a compound that boosts the body’s immune response, in millions of doses of the pandemic H1N1/09 swine flu vaccine….Living at depths between 300 and 1500 meters, the deep-sea sharks that produce squalene are usually caught via bottom trawling, a most destructive fishing method that has been likened to chopping down a forest to catch squirrels."

Finally, my new hero, Katrina, blogged about her shark cage diving experience over at The Cure For the Common Life, possibly my favorite blog name ever:

"We were in the cage just scanning the depths, seeing nothing but schools of fish.  And then, out of the deep blue came a large shape.  And there it was, in real life-a great white!  Rodney Fox told Ben and me that we need to write 1 or 2 sentences to describe how it felt at that moment so we'll always be able to go back and read them and feel those feelings again.  I'm not sure I'll ever be able to put those feelings into words, but I'll try my best.  It was surreal to be just inches away from the greatest predator on earth.  I felt no fear at all, only a sense of awe and wonder as I watched the 15 foot shark slowly glide past the cage.  I couldn't move or even think.  I was transfixed.  It was and always will be the most beautiful creature I've ever seen and I will never forget how it looked up close."


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

(Image Credits: Top - Jim Toomey; Middle - Universal Studios; Bottom - 14BikeCo;  Below - ICanHasCheezburger)




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