I am not afraid of many things in this world. But the usual roundup of deadly creatures — like snakes, spiders, and sharks, are always on the top of my list.
I’ve seen Jaws, after all. And it wasn’t pretty. The dah-nah, dah-nah, dah-nah as the music heightens right before the attack, didn’t help. I had nightmares for months after seeing that film. And I’ve never been able to enter the ocean without a slight chill running through my body at the thought of a nearby shark swinging by for a visit.
We Weren’t Always Afraid of Sharks
Before 1916, most scientists believed the sharks' teeth weren’t strong enough to break human-bone. These creatures that have been on the earth longer than insects, trees, and dinosaurs, were deemed to be tame. But everything changed after six shark attacks killed four people and injured one along the Jersey shore that summer.
Scientists realized they had been wrong. And the public came to have a profound fear of sharks, which reached new plateaus with the release of the novel Jaws in 1974. This was followed by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book into a blockbuster movie.
The book, like the movie, told the tale of a fictitious town off the East Coast that was being terrorized by a great white shark. Together, they sent the American public into a virtual shark frenzy.
Beachgoers dropped off substantially in the summer of 1975, following the release of the movie. This was dubbed the “Jaws Effect”. Today, the stigma remains.
An Irrational Fear
Unbeknownst to most people, the chances of anyone actually getting attacked by a shark are minuscule. There are over 470 different species of sharks, but only three are lethal — the bull shark, the tiger shark, and the white shark.
Despite the many millions of people that visit the coasts each year to frolic in the waves, less than 10 die from shark attacks.
But still, we cower at the thought. According to one Harvard professor David Ropeik, “This is largely because the more pain and suffering along the way to getting to being dead, the scarier it is.” And yet, this fear is largely unfounded.
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, you have a one in 11.5 million chance of getting attacked by a shark in this country. And you have a one in 264.1 million chance of being killed by a shark.
In fact, your chances of being killed by a shark are so small, that they pale in comparison to many of the more prevalent threats out there. Take beds. Each year almost 450 die falling out of bed in this country. And close to 25 people a year are killed as a result of champagne corks hitting them in the head and face at weddings and parties. That’s nearly 2.5X the number that die from shark bites.
Bad handwriting? Well those doctors with their illegible scrawls are killing another 7,000 people each year as a result of prescriptions getting mixed up. Coconuts falling on people account for another 150 deaths.
Finally, there are mosquitos. These pesky critters are one of the biggest killers around — taking out close to 800,000 people each year.
Sadly, none of these killers are getting the same shock and horror treatment we give to sharks. There are no sensational thrillers about killer beds. Or crazy coconuts. Hoards of people aren’t staying inside for fear of getting a mosquito bite.
But maybe they should. Or perhaps a better approach would be to rethink our view of sharks instead.
Sharks Should Be Afraid
If we are honest, sharks are really the ones that need to be afraid. After all, we are killing close to 100 million of them each year. That is roughly 11,000 sharks that die each hour largely due to over-fishing and pollution.
What’s more, close to 50 million of these sharks have the misfortune of dying because they are caught by commercial fishermen by mistake.
Those caught for their fins are often discarded back into the ocean once the fins have been removed and simply left to die.
Because of this, there are over 143 species of shark that are endangered, near threatened, or vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature “Red List” today. We are decimating shark populations at an alarming rate.
Unfortunately, there is still so much that we still don’t know about these creatures. And this is making conservation difficult.
But, we do know that they play an integral role in the ecosystem. Not only do they keep the turtle and stingray populations under control, but they also protect coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Deep-sea sharks additionally help minimize the release of carbon into the atmosphere by moving it along the seafloor as they consume dead fish and other sea creatures.
We also know that without sharks the ocean’s ecosystem will be thrown off-kilter. This would have a long-standing effect on both our planet and our lives.
A Better Path Forward
Sharks have suffered more than just bad PR. And this has been a blocker to conservation. But it shouldn’t be that way. The danger of sharks has been largely overblown by Hollywood and the media. We have more likelihood to get trampled by an irate cow than mauled by a rogue shark.
It’s important that we keep this in mind. Sharks need our help. Directly and indirectly. Fortunately, there are a number of things we can all do to make a difference:
- Steer clear of shark fin soup and only eat sustainably caught seafood. Fish products like artificial fish sticks and rock salmon also often contain shark meat.
- Look for pet food and fertilizers that don’t include shark squalene. One researcher who analyzed 87 different brands of pet food, found traces of endangered Hammerheads and Shortfin Makos in both cat and dog food using a method called DNA barcoding.
- Avoid cosmetics and beauty products including creams, lip balms, and eye makeup that use shark squalene (not to be confused with plant squalene). While many companies have recently made the switch to plant squalene, a surprising number have not. To find a list of sustainable products, just reference the Environmental Working Group website and look for products with the EWG seal. Lush and L’Oreal are two brands that have moved to use plant squalene. But many brands hide which type of squalene they are using. For example, one brand called Beyond simply lists squalene as “a natural ingredient” to avoid clarifying this point. Avoid these brands.
- If you are going to use glitter make-up, use eco-friendly glitter. Non-eco-friendly glitter is made of plastic and when washed off, ends up in our oceans as microplastic which can be ingested by sharks.
- Pass on using medicinal products including shark liver oil like Preparation H.
- Avoid buying products that use shark leather. Nike, Tory Burch, Jimmy Choo, and even Nike have been known to use this in their products.
- Choose not to buy energy drinks that include chondroitin which is shark cartilage. Suntory in Japan has been known to use this in several of its energy drinks.
- Always recycle plastics and whenever possible buy eco-friendly clothing. If you read my last piece on fashion, you know the sheer burden cotton and clothing are placing on our oceans.
Finally, spread the word. We are in a position to do something. So let’s take the opportunity to shine a positive light on these magnificent creatures for once.
Thank you for reading!
- Travel and Leisure, Why We’re Afraid of Shark Attacks (But Probably Shouldn’t Be)
- National Geographic, Why We Are Afraid of Sharks? There’s a Scientific Explanation
- The Swim Guide, 5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Being Afraid of Shark Attacks
- IPSOS, Sharks: Half (51%) of Americans are Absolutely Terrified of Them
- Nature Australia, Why Are We So Afraid of Sharks
- Wikipedia, Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916
- The Daily Cal, 14 Things that Kill More People Than Sharks
- Scuba Magazine, 5 Things More Likely to Kill You Than a Shark Attack
- Sciencing, Sharks of the Endangered Species List
- Maritime Herald, 40 Things More Dangerous Than Sharks
© Courtney Burry 2021, All Rights Reserved