Being a Shark Really Bites

Illustration by Lucinda Drake

Underneath the waves of a beach lies a scaly predator. He bides his time, waiting for his next meal. Finally, he sees movement and goes towards it. He opens his mighty jaw and grabs a hold of his target. The small fish didn’t stand a chance.

While sharks are predators, they are not killing machines. At least, not to humans. Ever since the release of Jaws in 1975, the public has expected sharks to intentionally seek them out and attack them, therefore being a major risk of swimming in the ocean. When asked to describe sharks in one word, a group of kindergarteners at Atkinson Elementary School used the words “hungry,” “biting,” “dangerous,” “pointy,” “sharp,” and “lots of teeth.” But when asked to do the same for bears, they used the words “nice,” “hunting,” and “mean.” Other predators are feared, but none have the kind of twisted reputation that sharks do.    

Even though sharks are perceived as a major risk, the risk of being involved in a shark attack is 1 in 11.5 million, and the risk of dying from a shark attack is less than 1 in 264.1 million. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than be in a shark attack. In fact, paints and varnish thinners have injured more people than sharks have. And on the rare occasion that sharks do attack, it is because they are confused, curious or provoked, not because they are on the hunt.

According to Shark Advocates International (SAI), “Sharks are among the most valuable, vulnerable, and neglected creatures in the ocean.” They play an unmeasurable role in the ocean’s ecosystem as a predator, and if they were to disappear, then that ecosystem would change indefinitely in ways that we cannot predict. While climate change is a factor, the main cause in the decline of sharks is hunting. According to SAI, “Over hundreds of millions of years, sharks have evolved to serve as important ocean predators and, as such, are not well equipped to withstand heavy predation themselves.” So when they are hunted for their fins, meat, hides, teeth, oil, and livers, they have no way to protect themselves. While humans should be helping protect sharks from rapidly approaching endangerment and extinction, they are instead ignoring this threat. “Jaws led to public acceptance that the state stepping in to kill sharks after shark bites was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Christopher Neff, a public lecturer at Sydney University. “The mistake in Jaws was seedy politicians not killing the shark sooner. The message was clear, killing sharks saves lives. And unfortunately we are still fighting this myth.” Because of the image that sharks are threats to humans, both the public and government don’t care to protect them. Even the original author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, recognizes this legacy and spent the last part of his career desperately trying to reverse it. Benchley gave lectures, created documentaries, and even wrote a manifesto on the topic of shark conservation. He even has a major conservation award named after him. And his wife, Wendy Benchley, helps to run the organization Shark Savers.

Shark’s endangerment is being ignored, and if they become extinct then the ocean’s ecosystem would be forever altered and the planet would be devoid of these historic scaly creatures. The only way to correct this injustice is through education and a public image change.

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