Fish Are Friends, Not Food

Mary Ferrito, Staff Writer

Did you know that you’re more likely to die by a falling vending machine than you are by a shark? Or that your chances of being bitten by a New Yorker on a subway is greater than being bitten by a shark in the ocean?

Since the release of the 1975 Jaws film and the many films with shark antagonists that followed, sharks have been unfairly painted as predatory, vicious man eaters that lurk under the surface, their only purpose being to pursue and devour humans. In real life, the roles are actually reversed. 

In the span of a year, sharks will kill an estimated 6 humans; humans, on the other hand, will mindlessly slaughter nearly 100 million sharks in the same time frame. Fishermen catch sharks, cut off their dorsal fin, then throw them back into the water where the shark is unable to swim and will die shortly after. The fins are a traditional delicacy in Asia when cooked into a soup, and they can be very profitable.

Rows of harvested shark fins.

This activity, known as shark finning, is illegal in countless places around the world due to the devastating impact that killing sharks in such high volumes has on marine ecosystems and the economy. Imagine the following scenario: Sharks eat rays, rays eat scallops. Without the sharks, the ray population flourishes, but with more rays, the scallop population nearly disappears, and the scallops’ predators starve off– the cycle, neverending. And that’s only for the rays; sharks are active members of endless food chains. Extreme highs and lows in species’ populations not only affects the health of the ecosystem, but also directly impacts fisheries and oceanic tourism who rely on sea animals to make money.

Oceana, an organization devoted to protecting our oceans, calculated that a reef shark in the Bahamas has a net worth of $250,000 as a result of dive tourism, as opposed to a $50 net worth when caught and finned by a commercial fisherman. If that wasn’t wild enough for you, here’s another: a single whale shark swimming in Belizean waters could bring in a whopping $2 million during its lifetime because of the hundreds of tourists dying to swim with such a beautiful shark like itself.

So, if sharks and humans are really on the same team, why is there such a disconnect between teammates? The answer is simple: fear. 

Despite the statistics, facts, and the much more dangerous risks we take daily, the fear of being in a shark attack cancels out all rationality. National Geographic helps us understand why so many humans have galeophobia– the intense fear of sharks. “…fears don’t necessarily match facts,” writes Elaina Zachos, “and the fear of being attacked by a shark is more about our emotional response than the reality.”

In essence, we are more afraid of the hypothetical pain and suffering we might endure if we came face to face with such sharp teeth than the actual animal itself. As humans, we crave control. Entering the water, though it’s extremely unlikely to exit scathed, is still a huge sacrifice of our control, creating a fearful and unsympathetic attitude towards the big fish. 

We know that sharks need our help desperately, so how can we learn to respect sharks but still protect ourselves and tame our fears? Be an advocate. Donate to organizations poised to protect sharks, or just further educate yourself and others on the issue of shark finning. Lastly, in order to mend the broken relationship between humans and sharks, there must be mutual respect, especially when in the water. Here are few tips to stay safe while at the beach:

  1. Avoid swimming at dusk or dawn. This is an active time for sharks and will increase your chances of being mistaken as prey. (Shark attacks never occur because a shark genuinely wants to eat a human– a human is easily mixed up with a seal or other fish, the shark will take a test bite to check, then will swim off unsatisfied. Plus we’re just too bony.)
  2. Stay close to shore. Sharks usually swim in the shallow waters, plus you can be more aware of your surroundings.
  3. Don’t wear anything that brings attention to yourself. Sharks have very good eyesight and smelling capabilities. Wearing shiny jewelry or bright colored clothing may entice a shark to check you out.
  4. Swim in groups. Though sharks don’t intentionally target humans, you’re more vulnerable alone than you are in a group.
  5. Avoid murky waters. If you love swimming in the ocean but are anxious that something is swimming around you, swimming in clear water can help ease some anxiety because you can analyze what’s going on around you.
  6. Stay out of the water. Everytime you go into the ocean, you are taking the (very low) risk that you could encounter a shark, and after all, you’re entering their territory so they make the rules. Staying out of the water is a 100% effective shark attack prevention method!

Sharks are misunderstood animals who urgently need humans to understand them for their true nature– not the malicious version of them that we’ve been conditioned to believe. If the only thing preventing you from loving these animals is their frightening appearance, try picturing them with human teeth instead!

Slightly less intimidating, right?

 If you want to learn more about the importance of sharks, or how to help and support them, below are some resources:

Stop Shark Finning Campaign | The Shark Trust

Why are sharks important? | Save Our Seas Foundation

Support SRI — Shark Research Institute (sharks.org)