Anybody who knows me well, understands how much I adore sharks. Apex predators of the deep and perfectly designed killing machines, yet incredibly majestic and breath-taking to watch. It has always been a dream of mine to cage dive with Great White Sharks, and one day I hope to study them for myself. As an elusive superorder, there is still so much to know about the modern sharks which grace our planet.
After a quick Google News search, I am greeted by a wealth of stories about the supposedly terrifying nature of these massive fish. “Great White Shark Attacks Boat of UNCW Students”, or what about the “Terrifying moment great white shark LEAPS from the water”. An article just a few days ago in the Daily Star stated that ‘BRITs have been warned that man-eating great white sharks find our seas perfect for hunting in’. And I have a problem with this statement. Well, problems. Firstly, according to The Shark Trust, ‘there have been no confirmed sightings, or substantial evidence’, of white sharks being present in British waters, despite good conditions. Secondly, I am fed up of the language utilised in the media regarding sharks, just to shock and terrify the public into buying more papers.
Shall we get the facts straight? Sharks are not ‘man-hunters’. In fact, more people get killed by cows in the U.S. every year than sharks, and you don’t see journalists labelling those as bloodthirsty killers. Worldwide, roughly six people are killed in shark attacks each year. If we want to get real about it, people are a much larger threat to sharks than they ever will be to us as a species. The journal Marine Policy recently reported that an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, largely for the shark fin trade, but in reality, that number could be anything between 63 million and 273 million individuals.
The branding of sharks as a menacing species to be feared, with film franchises like Jaws, hasn’t been ideal for creating an illustrious image for them. In fact, I have spoken to many people who are not bothered about the campaign to save sharks, as they under the illusion that we are better off without them anyway. For me, it is truly heartbreaking to witness the footage of fishermen cutting the fins off a variety of species of shark, only to throw these defenceless animals back into the water – alive. As a quick lesson in biology, being fish, sharks are required to swim in order to push water over their gills to oxygenate their blood to ensure their survival. Take away their fins and you are essentially subjecting them to death by means of suffocation. What make’s matters worse for me is after watching a documentary on the shark fin trade in China with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, we were informed that not only is this a barbaric practice, but the soup that is produced has no flavour. Shark fin soup is symbolic of wealth and that’s about it. Potentially, in my view, we are on the brink of wiping out a whole superorder in the name of arrogance.
The truth is, without sharks, there would be catastrophic impacts on marine ecosystems. Collapsing of trophic cascades across marine food webs due to shark extinction could result in exponential growth of algae and declines in populations of smaller organisms, such as molluscs and cephalopods. A 2005 study noted that the ecology of coral reefs die within a year if the shark population ceases to exist. Once these populations have declined, a domino effect will occur as there are insufficient food resources for other organisms higher up the food chain, which could ultimately result in fishery collapses.
But without being selfish and thinking about what the impact of this ecological genocide could potentially be for us as humans. Why can’t we stop this senseless killing purely because not only is it wrong, but it’s also unsustainable? At the current rate of harvesting, it is not plausible for shark populations to recover to a stable rate of population growth. Some species of shark have seen their populations plummet by over 90% due to shark finning – an unprecedented rate. There have also been reports of whale sharks being slaughtered for their gill rakers, much like manta rays. I cannot express enough how urgently we must stop the slaughter of sharks globally. Economically, they are worth far more alive, particularly to the tourism trade. Great Whites are estimated to be worth up to 50% of local business sales, due to tourists visiting Gansbaai, South Africa to dive with them. Whatsmore, they’re pretty damn awe-inspiring to watch.
The journey to stop this mallicious slaughter of millions of sharks globally is by no means going to be easy. There are many hurdles ahead. We are in a better position now than we were many years ago in terms of public awareness, and that’s a great start. The more people that are aware of the importance of preventing the slaughter of these fantastic beasts, the more pressure there be on international organisations to enforce the necessary legislation to stop their murder. It will be by no means simple, but it’s undeniable that it’ll be worth it.
If you want to know more about the shark finning trade or are interested in finding out more about sharks, I urge you to watch the documentary film Sharkwater.