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After working on a marine conservation project in Fiji, Ellen Mackenzie shares her real-life experiences with sharks and tries to rectify the unjust infamy of these magnificent predators.

 

SHARKS. What first comes to mind when you think of these Palaeozoic-era predators? Could it be that the very word incites that ostinato of bass notes – recognised as the spine-chilling soundtrack of Jaws – to run through your head? Could it be visions of glassy-eyed monsters going in for the kill from the minacious depths of the sea, unheard, unseen and unfelt until it’s too late? Or do you in fact recognise sharks as undeserving of this sensationalism-induced stigma, and appreciate them as majestic and highly evolved creatures worthy of our awe and respect? I do.

As part of my gap year before coming to university, I spent a month volunteering with sharks on a marine conservation project in Fiji, working alongside scientists and shark research experts in an effort to gather data and raise awareness in the community that would help towards the conservation effort. Prior to this, whenever I mentioned to friends or family (or just people that I met on my travels) that I would be diving with sharks in Fiji, the immediate reaction was always: “But they’re not… man-eating sharks, are they?”

Interesting question. Not one I can really answer in one word. Strictly speaking, sharks are not “man-eating” creatures at all. Yes, I hear your protestations – you’ve seen the stories on the news, you’ve read about it in the papers, you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who – but no.  Yes, sharks have been known to attack, and kill, a few humans – an average of about five a year. However, in comparison to vending machines, cows, toasters, champagne corks, and autoerotic asphyxiation – each of which do in fact kill more humans each year – and considering the amount of people who are actually in the water every day, worldwide (billions), it starts to seem like sharks aren’t such bad guys after all.

I remember myself how terrified I was, when at the age of six or seven, huddled with my little brother and my big sister in her bed as we sat watching all four Jaws movies in a row, I was being told over and over to never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever go in the water, because it was much too dangerous – and I believed it. For many weeks after that I was too scared to even sit on the toilet because I was so afraid that Jaws was going to spring up without warning and eat me.

It’s funny, now, to think how far I’ve come. In April 2014 I had the awesome experience of being 30 metres under the surface with my scuba gear on, sitting on the sea bed while up to fifty or sixty magnificent bull sharks swam about my head. And I must confess that, over the course of the month that I spent in Fiji taking part in various activities such as survey dives and shark tagging – I have become entirely, freakishly, passionately – almost worryingly – enamoured with sharks and their general awesomeness. Not only that, but I don’t find them to be frightening in any sense. Once you see for yourself how disinterested sharks are in your measly human presence (in so far as they do not see you as food) you are safely assured that no shark is a “man-eating” shark. Thus, this passionate fixation of mine will never be reciprocal – which is just the way it should be.

No matter what your impression of sharks may be, due to the all-too-prevalent belief that removing these supposedly mindless killers from our oceans as a way of making people safer is a good way to go, shark populations are decreasing rapidly, and it is our responsibility to make sure that this stops before we erase them from our oceans entirely. You don’t have to be as fanatical about them as I am (although I must ask, why not?) but you should be aware of the dire need to protect these creatures, the vital role they play in keeping balance in our oceans, and of what you can do to help. They may not be as sexy as snow leopards, or as cuddly as a panda, but nevertheless, sharks deserve your attention.

 

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Sharks have been around for over 450 million years. They’ve survived several mass extinctions, preceding and outliving dinosaurs, with most species at (or else near) the top of their marine food chains. In all that time, they’ve never had to worry much before about being hunted – that is, before the deadly homo sapiens came along. As apex predators, the role sharks play in regulating the populations of the species below them is a vital one in keeping oceans healthy. The depletion of shark populations can and will have disastrous effects throughout marine ecosystems – called a trophic cascade.

So, why are we so ignorantly continuing to slaughter them? This is due partly to the frightening and false ideas purveyed through a certain 70’s film series you may have heard of, of which I have made reference to above. The film’s message struck such terror into people’s hearts that the massacre of sharks, for decades after its release, began to be viewed as a prolific and even heroic pastime. In fact, the film was so damaging to sharks’ reputation that the self-same writer of the original novel, Peter Benchley (perhaps out of guilt for the “monster” he had created – i.e. the silly ideas that got into these people’s heads) became a passionate defender of sharks and an advocate for their conservation. Benchley even stated that, if another Jaws movie ever were to be made, “Jaws could not be the villain… it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.” These negative and misinformed attitudes towards sharks act as a barrier to conservation, so the need to dispel the myth has never been more crucial.

In addition to this, 30% of sharks are killed in fishing bycatch, which brings us to the first thing you can do to help. Make sure you only eat fish that are caught in a shark-friendly way – long-lines and trawl-caught fishing often accidentally catches and kills sharks. Look for eco labels on fish products such as Dolphin Friendly or Marine Stewardship Council. Making a conscious decision to buy fish and other seafood only from sustainable sources can go a long way in helping the cause.

Currently, however, the majority of shark murders (about 70%) take place for the ignoble cause of providing shark fins to make shark fin soup – a status symbol in Chinese culture representing class and wealth. It is commonly consumed at special occasions such as weddings, due to the popular belief that a bride marrying into a family without shark fin soup at the table is to live a life of poverty.

This outmoded and ludicrous belief is just another aspect of the plight sharks face. It goes without saying that, if you are to support shark conservation, you must never eat shark fin soup, or any other shark products. Cosmetics containing the ingredient squalene (shark liver oil) should also be avoided, so check your lipstick!

Tell others – spread the word about the importance of shark conservation. Respond to alarmist media stories and ask for balanced reporting, or write a letter to your country’s fisheries minister, letting them know you support shark conservation. Support Project AWARE’s work that seeks protection for sharks: www.projectaware.org/project/sharks-peril

Register for online newsletters, sign petitions. Find out what seafood products contain shark and avoid them. Let restaurant owners know you will not eat at their restaurant if they have shark fin soup on the menu. Support ecotourism. Pay for the privilege of diving with sharks – if sharks are proven to be worth more alive than dead, governments are more likely to take fishing bans seriously!

 

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I hope I’ve managed to convince you to show sharks some love, and get involved in the movement to restore their tarnished reputation. If I can convince at least one person in this life who was previously scared of sharks to dive with them, I will feel a glowing sense of accomplishment comparable to no other! If not, I hope at the very least that next time you hear the word shark, you think of something other than Jaws, and perhaps spare a thought for all the sharks still out there, suffering for this phenomenally distorted portrayal of their kind.

 
 

Ellen Mackenzie

 
 

Photo credit: Diego Cardeñosa

 

 

*The content of Perspective articles, as with all articles posted on the Tribe, reflects solely the views of the authors. The opinions expressed are not those of the Tribe as a publication or necessarily those of any other member of the editorial and/or writing staff*