Ah, sharks. The stuff of legends, they thrill us as much as they terrify us, largely due to their portrayal as bloodthirsty monsters in popular culture. From DC Comics’ super villain King Shark and the evil animated Sharkticons in Transformers to the terrifying true-story tales of attacks featured during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, these animals get a bad rap, which they really don’t deserve.
It was Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster hit Jaws that helped seal the fate of many a member of the Lamniformes order after the movie led to a massive, ignorance-fueled backlash against what we came to believe were human-hunting, man-eating enemies of epic proportions. We love to assign human emotions and unsavory motivations to non-human entities for thrills and entertainment, but the anthropomorphization of sharks has served to dramatically increase our fear of them on the one hand and our desire to show them who’s the boss of the world on the other.
When Sharks Attack
While getting attacked by a shark probably isn’t on anyone’s Top Ten List of Best Ways to Die, chances are, you’ll die of something far less interesting anyway. Take, for example, walking in a city. Your odds of being struck and killed by a vehicle are 1 in 623. The odds that you’ll die of a gunshot wound are 1 in 300. And the odds that you’ll die as a result from a fall are 1 in 184. The odds that you’ll die from a shark attack? One in 913,200,766. The United States averages about 19 non-fatal shark attacks a year, but in a single year, 43,000 Americans are injured by their toilet.
We humans flatter ourselves by thinking that sharks give a flying fluff about stalking and eating us. The truth is, sharks don’t like the taste of human flesh, and their digestive systems are much too slow to effectively process all of our 206 bones. That’s why there’s almost always a body (or at least part of one) to bury when shark attacks do turn deadly.
Here’s how a shark attack goes: There you are, swimming in waters that are frequented by sharks. Your farmer’s tan or your bright, flashy swimsuit or your shiny diamond ring catches the attention of Shirley Shark, who mistakes you for another fish species. She circles, zigzags toward you, and in true shark fashion, bumps you as she takes a bite. Suddenly, she’s got a nasty taste in her mouth, and she’s all, “What the–?!” and shrugs her big shark shoulders and swims away to find something edible to eat.
If you’re lucky, and most people are, you’ll end up with a few hundred stitches or maybe lose a leg or an arm. Unfortunately, sharks aren’t quite as lucky when it comes to being stalked and hunted by their most formidable predator.
Sharks’ Public Enemy Number One
While sharks kill less than 10 people worldwide each year, a recent study published in the journal Marine Policy found that at least 100 million, and possibly as many as 273 million, sharks are killed by humans every year. Using the low end of the estimate, this means that:
- 273,972 sharks are killed by humans every single day.
- 11,415 sharks are killed by humans every single hour.
- 190 sharks are killed by humans every single minute.
- Three sharks are killed every second.
Depending on how fast you read, by the time you’re finished with this sentence, about 12 sharks will have been killed.
And consider this: For every arm or leg taken by mistake from a human by a shark due to its natural animal instincts, millions upon millions upon millions of sharks are pulled into boats where their fins are unceremoniously sliced off, and their finless bodies are dumped back into the water. Why? Because serving up a bowl of shark fin soup is a status symbol in China and other Asian countries. Unable to swim, the sharks float bleeding and dying to the bottom of the ocean, if they make it that far without being mercifully consumed by a larger animal.
Decimating Shark Populations Doesn’t Just Affect the Sharks
The central mission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, is to conserve earth’s biodiversity. Their Red List is packed full of species that face extinction due to the political, economic, social, and ecological issues wrought by humans.
- A vulnerable status on the Red List indicates that best evidence shows that a species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild. The Great White Shark is on the vulnerable list, along with 47 other shark species.
- An endangered status indicates that best evidence shows that a species faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild. The great hammerhead shark shares this distinction with 14 other shark species.
- A critically endangered status indicates that best evidence shows that a species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. The angel shark is on this list with nine other shark species.
Sharks are killed by fishermen’s longlines, by the brutal practice of finning, and by “sport” fishermen who incorrectly believe that killing a powerful predator makes them a powerful predator as well.
So far, humans have decimated about 90 percent of the world’s shark populations for the sake of shark tooth jewelry and jaws that tourists buy in massive quantities, sharkskin accessories, phony medicines made from their cartilage, and a huge range of cosmetics, deodorants, moisturizers, sun tan lotions, and lip balms that use shark liver oil as a base because it makes our skin soft. (Check the ingredients of these items before you buy. If they contain “squalene” or “squalane,” leave them on the shelf.)
And here’s a taste of what we get for all those bowls of soup and shark jaws hanging on rec room walls in small towns in Kansas:
A recent study of waters off of the East Coast of the United States where 11 shark species have been eliminated from the ecosystem found that the decimation of sharks in that area resulted in the explosion of 12 of the 14 other species once kept under control by sharks. The damage caused by just one of those population explosions, namely the cow nose ray, resulted in the complete destruction of the bay scallop population, which affected the livelihood of bay scallop fishermen and reduced the quality of water due to the fact that bay scallops have the simple and elegant function of acting as a filter to keep the water clean.
That’s just one tiny consequence of dwindling shark populations in one itty-bitty speck of the ocean. Put that on a full-ocean scale, and killing sharks is just one more of the multitude of ways in which human beings are absolutely and mindlessly destroying our fragile planet.
The good news is, once we destroy it to the point where we can no longer inhabit it, the shark populations will likely return. After all, these ancient marine creatures have survived every single one of the planets five mass extinctions since they emerged about 420 million years ago, and they will likely survive the one caused by evolution’s newest and biggest scourge: Homo sapien.