Scared of sharks? It’s time for a role reversal
Many people are afraid of sharks, and this is quite a natural behavior. When we stare across the big blue ocean we don’t know what lurks beneath those waves. It’s a mystery; it’s the unknown – and this scares most of us. Add some sharp shark teeth into the equation and you have all the correct ingredients to breed a fear of sharks.
To try and counteract this fear, many people commonly quote statistics that go along the lines of “xyz kills more people than sharks in a year”. Indeed, this blog would be remiss if it didn’t provide you with a couple of these facts. Did you know that on average more people die from trying to get a snack from a vending machine (1) or from taking a selfie (2) than from shark attacks? And the number of deaths from shark attacks is incomparable to the number of people that die every year from car accidents or obesity-related illnesses.
Despite these somewhat ridiculous statistics, the truth is that humans kill a lot more sharks every year than vice-versa. While sharks kill 12 humans per year on average, humans kill 100 million sharks every year (as a conservative estimate – its likely more than this) (3). That’s 11 417 sharks killed every hour!
Sharks are generally sought after for their fins in order to make the delicacy of shark fin soup, but they are also caught as by-catch in many fishing industries. This has lead to 15.9% of shark species listed as threatened on the IUCN red list. This may not sound like a lot but when considering that almost half of the species do not have enough data to make an accurate assessment, this figure is likely to be much higher.
Now you might be asking yourself “what’s the problem with killing sharks?” and perhaps even thinking “I’m all up for a shark-free safe ocean!” If these thoughts ever pass through your head I’d like you to remember the following. First of all we need to consider the fact that sharks are very important in maintianing healthy oceans. The majority of the time they play the role of top predator and keep ocean food chains in check. They also keep fish populations healthy by eating the sick and injured fish. These two roles form just a subset of the important duties that sharks play that have been identified by scientists.
The second thing we have to realise is that sharks can very easily become overexploited i.e. fished at unsustainable rates. This is because sharks have what scientists call k-selected life history traits. All this means is that they grow slowly, they reach sexual maturity at late ages, and also they give birth to a small number of pups. All together this means that they have low ‘baby-making’ potential and as such they have difficulty in maintaining their population levels once they start being fished at moderate levels.
In conclusion I’d like to suggest that we start changing our perspectives on sharks. They are not hungry human-eating monsters lurking beneath the waves, but rather let us see them as the important pieces in the ocean puzzle that they are. Sharks are just trying to get by in the big blue and humans are unfortunately making this very difficult by killing so many of them. Let’s realize that sharks are actually the ones who should be afraid of us because the survival of many of their species is being threatened by human activity.