If you came across a dog on the street, its limbs cut off, slowly bleeding to death- would you walk away? Would you turn a blind eye and tell yourself that creature deserved it?
Most people would be outraged. There would be protests, calls to the police. People would want to see the person responsible for the heinous act brought to justice. So why is it that we allow this to happen every day to thousands upon thousands of sharks?
Every year 100 million sharks are killed. That’s 274,000 per day, 11,400 per hour, and 190 in the time it’s taken you to read this. These kings of the sea are fished out of the ocean, their fins hacked off, and quite often, thrown back into the water, where they will slowly drown to death. All this for a bowl of soup. A soup whose continued existence has been largely justified with the argument of “tradition.” When it was first established, shark fin soup was a symbol used to signify one’s wealth. In its early history the dish was only served to the Chinese emperor and his close associates. Although today, it is no longer as exclusive as it once was, it still retains some of its boasting past. The catch is, the rich history it leans on is only a little over a thousand years, a mere speck in geological time. There is simply no justification for this type of cruelty, and certainly not the argument being given today.
Sharks have roamed the seas for over 450 million years and they have done so largely unchanged from when they first appeared. These hydrodynamic, fascinating and awe-inspiring apex predators have been driven to the brink of collapse. Out of the known 400 species of sharks, over 100 are targeted for their fins and an estimated third of them are facing the very real threat of extinction. Not only would we be losing one of the most ancient and captivating creatures on this planet, the repercussions on the oceanic food system would be catastrophic. They are so integral to the food web that scientists can’t even begin to predict the effect of their disappearance. Already we are seeing the effects of disappearing predators with populations of rays and skates exploding, such as in Chesapeake Bay, where the Cow-nose ray boom is decimating shellfish numbers. For millions of years, sharks have been a part of the ecosystem- there is simply no telling what will happen if they’re suddenly not.
We are seeing the extermination of fish species across the board, with Bluefin tuna stocks predicted to collapse in 2050, along with a number of other major commercially exploited species. So why aren’t people doing anything about it?
Up until the 8th grade, I had dedicated very little time to thinking about sharks, save for the obligatory warning from my mother about keeping a weather eye out for them when swimming. It was only when I watched a documentary by celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, called Shark Bait that my eyes were opened. These animals need our help just as much as the panda (which is no longer classified as endangered as of September 2016), the rhinoceros, and the mountain gorilla. In fact, they might need it even more than them. Sharks, unlike some other endangered species face two additional challenges. Number one, they are not cute and fluffy. You can plaster a picture of a cute baby panda on the subway and you’ll have people cooing and awing all day long. But show someone an image of a shark and you’ll get none of that (unless you’re showing it to me of course). Sharks, like most other fish, are simply too alien for most people. They aren’t fluffy, you can’t hug them, and most people probably won’t ever even see them. It is difficult for people to feel empathy for a creature they just simply cannot understand. On top of that you have the added complication of a mindset instilled by the 1975, Jaws. A movie that, to this day, is still giving people a false idea of what these creatures are really like. It has taught people to fear them, it has taught people that sharks are nothing more than man-eating machines with a malicious desire to kill- when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Did you know that annually the average number of people killed by a shark is 10? Did you know that you are more likely to die from a vending machine falling on top of you? Did you know that jellyfish are responsible for 40 deaths a year in the Philippines alone? Not only are the numbers miniscule, every time you enter the water you enter their territory. They were there first. You know that they are there and they could potentially come up to you. You are the educated one and thus, the one taking a calculated risk. If they do end up attacking you, it is simply not something you can blame on the shark. Furthermore, most of these attacks occur in places where it is known that sharks frequent, or involve surfers. And I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever seen a surfer from below, they do have an uncanny resemblance to a seal.
For decades shark finning has been allowed to run rampant, because, in part, there hasn’t really been much of a public uproar to do anything about it. Most people simply don’t see sharks for what they are: a magnificent creature that is no more malevolent than the polar bear everyone seems to love. These creatures are doing nothing more than trying to survive. Who are we to justify their massacre on some petty idea instilled by, quite frankly, a shoddy 70’s film? Sharks need every voice they can get- can they count on yours?
Sophie is currently a student at the University of Edinburgh studying environmental chemistry. She plans to specialize in marine chemistry during graduate work. She has been supporting OceanCare for many years – thanks a lot!