If you were to encounter a shark in the ocean, your first reaction would probably be fear — fear for your safety and fear for your life. Sharks are dubbed as villainous, predatory people-eaters by the media. As a result, many people are oblivious to the fact that sharks aren’t the predators. Humans are.
I used to be just as afraid of sharks as everybody else. I refused to swim in the ocean because each time I stepped foot in the water, scenes from Jaws of a massive, oceanic monster flashed through my head. After volunteering at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy the summer before my Upper year, however, my perception of these animals completely changed. There, I was presented with facts that combat the widespread, harmful myths and became aware of the rapid rate at which humans are decimating the world’s shark population. I spent time in the outreach center and led boat tours to educate families about the conservancy’s efforts, research on white sharks, and ways to dispel deadly misconceptions. Through this work, I tried to do my part in bringing attention to the seriousness of the inhumane treatment of sharks and in ending the stigma surrounding these creatures.
The occurrence of shark attacks is not nearly as common as many believe. According to “TIME Magazine,” your chance of being bitten by another human in New York is ten times greater than your chance of being bitten by a shark. The International Shark Attack File states that in 2016, only four deaths worldwide were due to unprovoked shark attacks, and only 84 unprovoked shark encounters occurred worldwide. Furthermore, although sharks are portrayed as enormous predators, half of all shark species measure under three-feet, according to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Many people believe sharks to be massive, blood-thirsty creatures and are unaware of the true statistics. If humans were compared directly to sharks, we would be exposed as much more predatory. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History states that humans kill up to 100 million sharks per year. That is three sharks every second.
These surprising facts, however, are not enough to remove the stigma surrounding sharks that movies like “Jaws” have perpetuated. In addition to spreading awareness about the statistics showing the small threat sharks pose to humans, we should practice safety habits in shark-inhabited water. This includes not swimming during dawn and dusk, which makes it harder for humans to see their surroundings in the water, avoiding seals (as they are the main prey of great white sharks), and not swimming too deep.
The alarming decline in the worldwide shark population is due to the inhumane, but lucrative practice of shark finning. In this process, fishermen catch a shark, cut off its fins, then drop the still-living shark back into the ocean. Without any fins, the shark is unable to swim and thus drowns. The fins are then shipped off to places like Hong Kong to be made into shark fin soup, according to Scientific American.
While shark finning has been federally banned in the United States, it is still common practice in other coastal countries around the world. This is not only diminishing the shark population, but is also putting the survival of the ocean’s natural predators on the line. Many shark species are now listed as endangered or vulnerable, and as top predators, their decline poses a danger to the ocean ecosystem. Sharks, who are at the apex of the food chain, would be no longer able to control the populations of species below them.
Recently, there have been many great white shark sightings off the coast of Massachusetts, specifically in Cape Cod. Constant media attention from local and nationwide news sources reporting on these sightings fool people into believing that the shark population is stable even though it is far from healthy. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, great white sharks are listed as a vulnerable species. In order to maintain a balanced marine ecosystem and healthy environment, both the portrayal of sharks as dangerous animals and the allowance of international shark finning must stop.
The United States’ ban on shark finning is a step in the right direction, but there is much more to be done. Educate yourself and others on the myths surrounding sharks. Learn to respect and appreciate sharks in their natural environments, rather than fear them. Support shark education and conservation efforts. Although this problem seems much too vast for a single person to make a difference, every person counts. So, Andover, I implore you to do everything you can to shatter harmful stereotypes and promote shark conservation.