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September 12, 2005

Why Sharks Matter

When people think of summer, certain things come to mind: warm weather, beaches, watersports and-sharks. Chalk it up to the enduring cultural imprint of Jaws (last June marked the movie’s 30th anniversary) or the fact that, some years, it has seemed as though sharks were running amok, and the papers were filled with stories of people who’d been bitten, losing limbs and in a few tragic cases, lives. And it’s true that the bull shark, the species often responsible for close-to-shore encounters in Florida and the Gulf Coast regions, is one aggressive fish.

However, the scenario of marauding sharks descending on the beaches come July 1 is wrong on several levels. For instance, it’s now known that sharks don’t actively hunt humans (with the possible exception of bull sharks, who seem to hunt anything that moves). And it’s clear, especially to Oceana’s audience, that sharks have far more to fear from us than we have to fear from them. I can’t vouch for this figure, though I’ve heard it many times: For every human that is bitten by a shark, humans manage to kill 10 million sharks. Bad enough. But in 2003, Dr. Ransom Myers and the marine scientists at Dalhousie University released a stunning report showing that fully 90 percent of the global seas’ large predatory fish were gone, and that this had happened in a breathtakingly short time.

In the press release accompanying the publication of the study, Meyers said: “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10% – not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”

Clearly, things have to change if the ocean’s alpha species are to survive. When you consider that sharks are among the oldest animals on earth, having survived at least four global mass extinctions, it’s astonishing to think that they might not survive a single generation’s worth of industrialized fishing. Throughout this week, I’d like to talk about why sharks matter – even the most feared among them – introduce you to a group of adult great whites that I was fortunate enough to spend time with, and discuss the latest marine biology aimed at making sure that in the future, humans aren’t the wildest things out there. Because, actually, summer is not shark season, at least not on the West Coast. Autumn is.