21 June 2005

A Shark's Tale: Who is afraid of who?

Thirty years after Jaws first bared his teeth, sharks are still seen as man's deadliest predator. But, really, it's them who should be afraid of us, says Michael McCarthy

Take two marine animals. Both have been subject to relentless slaughter by man. Both may be driven to extinction. Yet the fate of one commands worldwide public sympathy, while for the other there is, at best, indifference. One is a whale, the other a shark.

Today, the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting opens in Korea, and anti-whaling campaigners around the world will be hammering home their conservation message. Meanwhile, the almost incredible rate of shark slaughter evokes hardly a flicker of public interest. In fact, today is a significant date for sharks for a very different reason: it is the 30th anniversary of the opening of Jaws.

There, in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster film version of Peter Benchley's novel, is the simple but enduring reason for our difference in attitude to these two creatures: what concerns us about the sharks is not our killing them, but them killing us. The fear is clearly a very deep and ancient one, hard-wired into the genes: the fear of being hunted, killed and eaten by a predator. Not many beasts actually eat us, after all: polar bears, tigers, crocodiles, occasionally lions. Yet sharks seem to top them all in the terror they induce, perhaps because they appear mysteriously from the unknown depths. "Sharks come from a wing of the dark castle where our nightmares live, deep water beyond our sight and understanding," Benchley wrote.

What the film of his novel did, three decades ago, was to give the world a modern shark myth, universal in its appeal. And appeal is the right word: we seem to have a horrified fascination with shark attacks. Type the latter words into an internet search engine and you will get nearly half a million entries describing the damage that a great white, say, can do to the body of an unlucky surfer.

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF), based at the Florida Museum of Natural History, carefully checks out all shark attack reports every year and puts our fear into some sort of perspective. Only seven people were killed by shark attacks in 2004: two in Australia, and single deaths in Brazil, California, Egypt, Hawaii and South Africa. In 2003, the figure was four deaths; the year before that it was three. Professor George Burgess, who runs the ISAF, thinks that the wide publicity given to any shark incident gives a completely false sense of the risk, and points out that in the US you are hundreds of times more likely to die from a deer colliding with your car that from a shark attack.

In fact, it's the sharks who should be afraid of us. In the last 20 years, the shark has shifted from predator to prey. When China embraced capitalism in the late Eighties and early Nineties, it also embraced conspicuous consumption, and with it came a renewed and widespread taste for an old Chinese delicacy: shark's fin soup. This has led to an explosion in demand for fins, so great that in some parts of the Pacific sharks have been fished out to supply it. Not the least unpleasant aspect of this trade is that, often, when sharks are caught their fins are cut off and the fish are thrown back into the water to die.

Furthermore, as traditional fish stocks have plummeted, fishermen around the world have increasingly turned to sharks as a substitute. It is estimated, based on data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, that 100 million sharks are now being taken out of the ocean every year, either from fisheries that target them directly, or as "bycatch" - the accidental product of other fisheries. And shark populations, because of their basic biology, simply cannot stand it.

Sharks are not like cod: they are top predators, living at the apex of the food chain, and they have very few natural enemies. This means that they do not need to overcompensate for large-scale mortality in their young by producing them in large numbers. A female cod may lay five million eggs, of which only a tiny fraction will survive; but a great white shark may only produce two pups, which will take a long time to grow to maturity. So if a shark population is heavily reduced by fishing, it can take many decades - or even centuries - to rebuild itself.

"Biologically speaking, they're among the most vulnerable animals in the ocean," says Sarah Fowler, a leading British shark expert. "The problem is, they have so few young, so infrequently, and they take so long to reach maturity, that if you take a population and halve it, it can take 270 years to bounce back. We won't see the recovery of some of them in our lifetime."

The latest estimate from the IUCN, the World Conservation Union, is that 65 of 373 shark species assessed - out of a world total of about 440 - are now threatened. But the real figure may be higher. The trouble is, data is scarce, and there is an absence of regulation, especially in Europe. "None of them are protected, there are no regulations concerning their management, none are subject to fisheries regulations, there is no minimum size, no maximum size, nothing," says Fowler.

A marine ecologist, she was the founding director of the Shark Trust, a charity set up in 1997 to promote conservation management and education about sharks in the UK. This year she has gone one better: she is the joint author of The Collins Field Guide to Sharks of The World, which claims to be the first single volume to illustrate, describe and map all the world's shark species.

One of its fascinations is the distribution map for the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias - Jaws himself - which clearly shows that they could be all around the British coast. Fowler, however, is not convinced: "It's possible rather than actual," she says. "There's absolutely no reason in the world why the great white shouldn't be around our coasts, except it's never been recorded, and you would expect it to be, if it was around. The temperature is fine for them - they occur in much colder waters. Possibly they're just so scarce in this part of the world, there aren't enough of them there."

She hopes the Field Guide will spark more interest and perhaps more understanding for sharks, which, she agrees, are languishing a long way behind whales in the public sympathy stakes. "It's a cultural thing," she says. "It goes back a long way. The Greeks were saying nice things about dolphins at the same time as Aristotle was describing sharks as ravening monsters."

Spielberg's movie, she says, definitely did not help, although she is an admirer. "I think it's one of the best films ever produced, the best animal horror story ever," she says. "But it did demonise sharks for people all around the world."

She instances a visit she made to a fishing village in Sabah, in Malaysia. "There are people there who catch sharks, and none of them have ever been attacked by sharks," she says. "But they've all seen Jaws, and those of the villagers who are not going out catching sharks are frightened of them because of the film.

"Decades later, in parts of the world where you just wouldn't expect people to have heard of it, it's still having an impact."

'The Collins Field Guide to Sharks of the World', by Leonard Compagno, Sarah Fowler and Marc Dando, costs £25. The Shark Trust can be reached at www.sharktrust.org.

Source: news.independent.co.uk


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