Imagine a crowd of tourists and surfers, all enjoying the shallows along a long, tropical beach. One swims a little too far out past the ‘shelf’, stops and treads water, watching the crowd in mild bemusement. Suddenly, a long, dark shadow approaches and circles, before dragging the person underwater.
This is as close to the stereotypical Hollywood shark storyline as any of the many movies to come onto the big screen, perpetuating and selling the idea that sharks are indiscriminate killers. Unfortunately, this rhetoric has been pedaled way too often and has influenced too many people into believing the hype and fearing these majestic creatures; and as their numbers continue to fall in the wild, it is important, now more than ever, to have a proper conversation about sharks.
How Old Are Sharks?
The oldest known fossils of sharks date back to almost 450 million years ago, giving them a lot of time to evolve over the years. One of the oldest sharks, the Megalodon, still gets a lot of press today for being the largest predator (59ft max) from the beginning of vertebrates, even though it has been extinct for 2.6 million years. Today’s Great White shark was believed to have been around the same time as the Megalodon, and despite the latter being three times larger, they never crossed paths as they fed on different prey. As waters all around the world shifted in temperature, the lack of large enough prey for the Megalodon to feed on died out and their breeding grounds became unsuitable, causing this ginormous apex predator to die out, succeeded by its smaller, more adaptable cousins.
Role In The Ocean
Over 465 species of sharks patrol the oceans to date, from the slow-moving Basking shark to the speedy Mako shark. The different body shapes and sizes mean they each occupy a different role in individual ecosystems, be it the ocean’s garbage can (Tiger shark), eating everything in sight, or a nocturnal bottom-hunter, like the Hammerhead. However, whatever they may do individually, they are all at the top of their food chains, and most are apex predators. Some, like the Basking shark and Whale shark (top 2 largest fish), feed solely on plankton and/or krill, but their size means they have no natural predators.
Humans Encountering Sharks
As of September 8, 2016, there have been six fatal shark bites, 58 non-fatal bites, and 11 encounters with no bite since the turn of the year. On average, five to ten people die a year from shark attacks, and this year looks to reach the upper quartile. This comes as no surprise considering how badly the fishing industry has crippled fish stocks and ruined ocean habitats, forcing many sharks to look elsewhere for prey. Considering that mosquitoes kill over 70,000 times more people than sharks do annually (~725,000), people should be way more wary of mosquitoes than they are with sharks, especially here in the Philippines.
Sharks Encountering Humans
The same cannot be said about encounters on the flip side. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, as their flesh fetches too low a price to be worth landing. Despite shark finning being illegal in many countries, and landing a shark’s fins without its bodies being illegal in most others, the number has not dropped, and it has caused most shark species to be endangered.
Sharks are less able to recover from low stock numbers unlike fish (even though it is obvious that many fish stocks are still suffering to overfishing despite their ability to bounce back) due to their unique breeding patterns. Unlike fish, there are no mass spawnings, with most sharks producing one or two pups at a time, with a maximum, for some species, of a dozen or so young, and like humans, many carry the young to term, taking 9-12 months to mature and be born. Between the long maturation time and the small number of young, it is just not enough to keep up with the sharks being culled daily, and now, most species of shark are either threatened or endangered.
This is all before considering that rays, the cousin of the shark, are also endangered due to both overfishing and being caught to make paraphernalia.
Taking On What We Fear
Its powerful jaws and big, sharp teeth make the shark a very easy target for blame. However, hippos, dogs and even freshwater snails kill way more people yearly than sharks ever will. Here’s why:
Sharks do not seek out humans.
Most shark related deaths are generally either due to an already-present open wound or a shark mistaking a surfer/swimmer for a seal or a turtle, the shark’s regular prey. Great Whites probably get the worst rep for being mindless hunting machines, but in truth they are picky eaters, usually ‘tagging’ its prey to taste for a high fat content before actually moving in for the kill.
The ocean is their home, not yours.
Walking into a forest should fill you with a healthy respect for the possible predators in the area, and so should stepping into the ocean. Sharks are at the top of their personal food chains, and when humans enter their domain, it should come as no surprise that they may choose to defend their territory. Their naturally curious, not attack-dog, nature is the main reason that in most years, shark attack deaths are kept to single digits all around the world, despite having the mechanisms in place to take down almost anything in the ocean.
Sharks don’t waste.
Unlike a Komodo dragon bite, that is ferocious and kills you due to the bacteria present in its mouth, a shark bite is usually tentative at first. The nip is a taste test, as it does not want to kill you if it doesn’t like the taste of you. Humans are not a usual part of its diet, making us very unpalatable to sharks, meaning many do get away despite being ‘tagged’ by a shark.
Simple – as the consumer, get educated and stop eating anything shark-related. Sharks are finned very inhumanely; usually after being landed, the shark has its head bashed in, its dorsal, pectoral and tail fins cut off, and thrown back into the ocean to die, either from bleeding, drowning, or starvation, whichever comes first. As the ocean’s apex predator, the shark plays a key role in taking care of fish numbers in individual ecosystems, and its demise has led to excessive algal blooms all along the reefs, slowly destroying the health of our oceans. For such a wasteful industry, the ramifications of losing sharks at this rate are devastating.
As a side, equally important note: Whale sharks frequent the waters of Donsol Bay. This unique experience should be taken as a privilege, not a right, and these gentle giants should be treated with tremendous respect. All too often, photographs surface of people swimming up to the sharks and touching them, some even standing on top of them as they cruise near the surface.
This causes the whale sharks a tremendous amount of stress and causes the removal of some of the slime on its body that it needs to prevent its body getting too saline. Coupled, this can cause endless harm, and as the Philippines is part of this shoal’s migratory route, it should be protected at all cost. Photos are fine, swimming alongside them is fine, but please do give them enough space and never touch them!
Sharks may be depicted as scary, man-eating monsters on film, but that could not be further from the truth. Individual sharks have their individual personalities and quirks, and each should be respected as individuals, not treated as a whole and culled as a whole for profit. Please do not support the shark fin trade by purchasing any shark fin products, because as consumers, you are the ones with the power; if the buying can stop, then maybe the killing will too. Each and every shark not killed for their fins is another that could live to breed another day, and that is so, so important.
Sharks are not killers of the deep, they’re just deeply misunderstood.