Ever since Jaws’ release in 1975, Hollywood has pumped out a consistent stream of shark movies. And as this flow has continued, the image of the bloodthirsty, man-eating shark has become accepted fact. This would be fine on its own, but as people have turned that fear to action, sharks have become the prey of civilization.
Shark species are a lot gentler than we make them out to be. Blacktip reef sharks, for example, are known for being timid and shy with no human deaths documented. Scuba divers need to coax hammerhead sharks out with food just to see them. Like any shark, they aren’t very aggressive unless they’re provoked. While sharks are opportunistic feeders, they tend to stick to diets of small fish and invertebrates, with only some eating bigger animals like seals. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sharks do not normally hunt humans, but if they do attack, it is usually a case of mistaken identity.
“Assuming a large, predatory shark has not been exposed to human flesh before, it is probably used to biting into thick-tissued, fatty sea lions, seals and similar-bodied prey.” Discovery explains, “Sometimes sharks will investigate potential food items by taking a taste. Unfortunately, given their many rows of sharp teeth, a few shark species can cause an individual to bleed to death after a single bite.”
The stereotype of the vicious shark chomping down bodies is far from the truth- on average, sharks kill 11 humans a year. Humans kill 11,417 sharks an hour. These sharks are most commonly used in beauty and edible products, with the biggest killer shark fin soup. To prepare it, fishers capture a shark, cut off its fins then re release it back into the wild. The shark, unable to swim and therefore breathe, quickly suffocates, bleeds to death or gets eaten by other fish. The United States, Northern Europe and Japan are also big buyers of shark skin, which is used for luxury products like boots, wallets or handbags. In cosmetics, shark liver oil (more commonly called squalene) is found in lipsticks and skin care products for its hydrating benefits.
This market for shark goods has threatened 32% of sharks with extinction. The demand has become so high that only 10% of the sharks present in the ocean 15 years ago are still alive. To put that in perspective, imagine if out of your average class of 30 kids, only three still existed.
Sharks serve as the apex predator of the oceanic food chain. If they disappear, then the entire underwater ecosystem is unbalanced. For example, if the hammerhead shark went extinct, stingrays would overpopulate, destroying the shellfish population, with the final result being the end of the line for many other species. Sharks keep the ecosystem functioning and are a key sign if everything is OK underwater- Hawaiian scientists, for example, have found that tiger sharks have a positive impact on seagrass beds.
How can you help? First, you don’t need to feel guilty about watching your favorite horror shark movie. Instead, take action by telling your friends, supporting charities that seek to preserve sharks and abstain from products with shark in them. There’s a countless amount of organizations, with the top being Project AWARE, Oceana, and Shark Angels. In some, you can even adopt a shark. If you don’t have money to spend, you can also help by signing petitions that seek to benefit sharks, either through asking to ban shark products like squalene or passing legislation to conserve shark habitats. The easiest way is to just not buy items with shark in them. Watch out for squalene in cosmetics or shark meat in your food. Shark meat may be sold under the name of the species it came from (I.E “blackened mako”) but it is often disguised. Some restaurants, for example may call it “flake” and sell it as fish and chips.
Virtually every shark species is on the decline due to poorly regulated domestic and international fisheries. And there’s no need for it- there’s a handy substitute for shark skin, oil, and meat ready to go. Once we make that easy switch, we will be able to help put a stop to the decimation of our underwater ecosystems and keep this 400 million year old species alive for tomorrow.