Behind the Jaws
How does one convince the public to appreciate and protect sharks? I was lucky enough to have this appreciation at a young age. Growing up in south Florida, not far from Everglades National Park, I fell in love with nature in general, and sharks in particular, after my dad built a small house on a canal in the Florida Keys.
One day we saw the biggest hammerhead shark I have ever seen, displayed on the seven-mile bridge that connects the Keys to Miami. It was a cruel sight. The shark was so beautiful, so amazing - and dead.
A budding ichthyologist, I yearned to study the reality of sharks at the University of Miami. This dream was never realized, but I did continue to study sharks on my own. I learned that sharks have to swim to breathe. And that the shark family includes the largest of all fish on earth, the whale shark - as well as the quirky sawfish, a ray-like shark with a long, razor-like nose. Most sharks bear their young live, as mammals do.
The oceans are a wilderness where sharks naturally serve the important function of preying on healthy animals to ensure diversity and balance in aquatic populations. They have done so over 400 million years; their ranks include some of the oldest species on the planet. Sharks lived through the extinction of the dinosaurs, but significantly, sharks of some species take more than 20 years to reach sexual maturity, and bear young only every other year. So sharks are also vulnerable. We are now their biggest threat.
Worldwide, sharks kill about 28 people each year. In contrast, as the Shark Research Institute observes, humans kill about 100 million sharks per year. Some scientists estimate the rate of decline may be as high as 2% per year for certain species. A recent study conducted by Dalhousie University indicated that from 1986, nearly all shark species declined at least 50%, with some populations approaching collapse. Tiger shark populations plummeted 65%, white sharks fell 79%, and hammerhead sharks declined 89%. Aerial studies along the coast of South Africa from 1993 to 2001 documented an 83% decline in whale sharks.
A major threat to sharks today is finning. Hundreds of thousands of sharks are caught each year for this purpose. They're hauled to the side of a boat, their fins are cut off, and they are dropped back into the ocean, often still alive, but drowning because they can no longer swim. This horrific practice is carried out to make shark fin soup.
In 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service banned shark finning in U.S. waters, but the rules only cover U.S. fishing boats, so the practice continues in U.S. waters and elsewhere. In 2004, 63 countries agreed to halt shark finning in all Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. Legislation doesn't guarantee, however, that a lucrative practice will stop.
In addition to finning, there are the commercial gill nets. Often more than 30 miles long, they drift through the seas, trapping most creatures in their paths, including sea turtles, whales, and sharks. Longline fish-catching enterprises snag huge numbers of sharks. Most are left to rot in the sea.
Numerous organizations are attempting to educate the public about the plight of the sharks; but most movies and fictional books - notably the Jaws series, which began with Peter Benchley's 1974 novel - portray them as savage, blood-thirsty, and ravenous monsters. On the rare occasion when someone is attacked by a shark it makes worldwide headlines. There is something about sharks that humans find innately terrifying. Marine biologists offer a different view.
I recently read about a diver near the Farallon Islands who one day dived off his boat directly onto the back of a 14 foot long Great White. The shark, clearly annoyed, turned around and charged him. But that was all; the shark swam away. Most people would assume the shark would have attacked and killed the intruder. In the same position as that shark, what would we do?
Humans rarely show mercy to the animals we slaughter every day for food. Hunters rarely show compassion for the animal lives they take - many for trophies to hang on a wall. We project our own behavior onto sharks. In reality, I think humans are far more savage than sharks. Sharks kill for a purpose - to sustain their lives. Humans kill for sport and pleasure. We kill for food, although we can sustain our lives without animal flesh.
Please do your part to ensure the survival of sharks. Do not eat shark fin soup and don't patronize restaurants that serve it. Refuse to buy products made from sharks, including health supplements that contain shark cartilage. Educate people you know and your congressional representatives about the plight of sharks. Support prohibitions on finning and request that sharks be included as protected species whenever protection is considered for other marine life.
Peter Benchley (1940-2006) was a U.S. author best known for the novel Jaws and co-writing the screenplay for its famous film adaptation.
In later life, Peter Benchley demonstrated a promising ability to change, to renounce the theme of fighting wars against other beings, and to live with a growing respect for the biocommunity of which we are only a part. One day, will that ability make it possible for us to look at other species with hope for their own flourishing, putting aside their usefulness to us? In "The Rapture of The Deep," a tribute in February 2006 in Bermuda's Royal Gazette, editor Tim Hodgson quoted Peter Benchley's own words, of which we'll include an except below.
If I were to try to write Jaws today, I couldn't do it. Or, at least, the book I would write would be vastly different and, I surmise, much less successful, [Benchley] said in a Smithsonian Institution lecture. I see the sea today from a new perspective, not as an antagonist but as an ally, rife less with menace than with mystery and wonder.
And I know I am not alone. Scientists, swimmers, scuba divers, snorkellers, and sailors all are learning that the sea is worthy more of respect and protection than of fear and exploitation...
Warning flags are already flying...When we flush our untreated waste into streams, rivers, and the sea, nitrogen and phosphorus disrupt nature's balance by supporting algae blooms and a consequent depletion of oxygen to the point where marine life cannot survive. Parts of many bays and sounds are already practically dead zones.
When toxic chemicals, from those under our kitchen sinks to the by-products of industry, run off into coastal waters, they may enter the food chain and contaminate the fish we eat – sometimes with devastatingly tragic results. When we drive our cars on roads that border waterways, rain washes oil residue into the water, causing more widespread, long-term pollution than any spill from a grounded tanker, pollution that weakens marine wildlife when it doesn't kill directly.
... The ways we are nourished by the sea, the ways our lives benefit from the sea – materially as well as spiritually – are nearly infinite. And we are well on our way to ruining it all. What madness that would be. What suicidal folly.
Denise Boggs is the Executive Director of the Conservation Congress based in Lewistown, Montana, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- National Marine Fisheries Service press release: "NMFS Announces Final Rule to Implement the Shark Finning Prohibition Act" (11 Feb. 2002).
- U.S. Department of Commerce/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration press release: "International Commission Adopts U.S. Proposal for Shark Finning Ban" (23 Nov. 2004).
- See Susan Casey, The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Survival and Obsession Among America's Great White Sharks (2005).