By Christine Harris
It’s easy to get behind an effort to save pandas or elephants. These cute, cuddly, charismatic creatures can easily open up the wallets of even the most frugal conservationists, but when was the last time you considered supporting an effort to save a cold-blooded carnivore? Sharks across the world are experiencing severe population declines as a result of hunting and fishing practices that leave millions of these animals dead annually.
The mainstream media has filled our heads with visions of sharks as evil, man-hungry beasts. Films like Jaws, Shark Night, and Deep Blue Sea all feature great white sharks on killing sprees. In actuality, a shark attack on a human is extremely rare. According to the University of Florida’s Shark Attack Files, worldwide there were an average of only two fatal shark attacks annually between 1999 and 2009.
Large, carnivorous sharks like the great white prefer to feed on marine mammals like seals and sea lions. Most sharks that “attack” humans have confused them with one of these prey species and will recognize their error when they take a “test bite” of the human and discover that there is little fat when compared to a blubbery seal.
Often surfers, particularly those in the great-white-rich waters off of Australia, are the unfortunate victims of shark attacks. When one considers the amount of time that surfers spend in the water and the large, dark, shape they take on from below with their boards and wetsuits, it is feasible to imagine how they could be mistaken for a marine mammal. Though a case of mistaken identity is little consolation to a person who is bitten by a shark, it does dispel the man-hungry myth we have heard so often in popular culture.
Though sharks have traditionally been thought of as a threat to humans, the opposite is more likely to be true. In one year it is estimated that 79 million sharks are killed by humans. Of those 79 million, approximately 73 million are killed for use in shark fin soup. The main conservation issue facing sharks today is the popularity of shark fin soup, particularly in Asia. As a larger middle class emerges in China, more people are able to afford this delicacy that runs about one hundred dollars a bowl. The fins are acquired by catching sharks, slicing off the fins and discarding them back into the water where many of them die slowly.
Fortunately, a public billboard and commercial campaign in China featuring basketball star Yao Ming has helped to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of shark fin soup. Of those who saw the ads, the vast majority said they would stop eating the dish. Other efforts to protect sharks include those of the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Initiatives which have worked with countries around the world to designate 926,645 square miles of ocean as shark sanctuaries which are off limits to shark fishing of any kind.
In China, where shark fin soup is most popular, the government, in June 2013, banned the soup from all official government functions, helping to bring the issue into the national spotlight. Though the reliability of the statistic is questionable, the Chinese ministry of commerce reported a 70 percent drop in the consumption of shark fins in China in 2012-2013. As of January 2014, the price of shark fins had fallen 20-30 percent in major Chinese fishing markets, including Hong Kong and Macau, as the demand for fins decreased. Who would have thought that so many people would care about protecting the most feared predators in the ocean?
How likely are you go be attacked by a shark? Check out this page from the Shark Attack Files.