Yesterday the BBC published an article about a women who was attacked by a shark while swimming off the English Bay of Ascension Island of St. Helena. Nothing newsworthy here, if you ask me. The reason why I am writing about it is because this news article states the government of St. Helena has warned swimmers entering the water that they do so at their own risk. This implies that it can be dangerous to enter the water because you may be bitten and killed by a shark – I am pretty sure they are not referencing to drowning. I find this preposterous.
Yes, you may encounter a shark while swimming in the ocean, and yes, you might even be bitten by one. But let’s talk numbers, shall we? The probability of that actually happening – you being killed by a shark – is 1 in 3,700,000. And you know what? The probability of you dying from the flue is 1 in 63; and the probability of you dying from a fall is 1 in 218. And let’s not even talk about the probability of you dying of cancer or heart attack.
Jaws, the Spielberg masterpiece of 1975 based on author and shark conservationist Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, was bad news for shark populations all around the world. In Jaws, a giant great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) arrives on the shores of a small beach resort in New England and begins to leave a bloody and deadly trail behind it, wreaking havoc and disrupting the economy and social tissue of this highly tourist-reliant small beach town. The local sheriff teams up with a marine biologist and a seafarer to hunt the shark down and bring peace and prosperity back to the idyllic seafront community. And then, the world went mad. Suddenly people all over the world began to freak out about swimming in the ocean, fearing being dismembered and chopped into pieces by razor blade-like teeth and left for dead – or worse even, being eaten! – in the deep blue sea by a giant merciless, stalking, killing machine. A massive shark hunt also began. And conservation organisations remained silent for way to many years as they found that it was incredibly hard for people to relate to sharks and thus have the incentive to mobilize and campaign to protect them (the documentary Sharkwater by the renowned late documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart depicts this). Jaws created a massive worldwide hysteria around sharks, one that hasn’t been shaken off since.
Shark populations have been experiencing a steep decline in the last 30/ 40 decades. For every 1 person bitten by a shark, two million sharks are killed. And this is having drastic dire consequences on the health of our marine ecosystems. As an apex predator at the top of the food chain and by being present in virtually all parts of the ocean, sharks play a crucial role in balancing out our ecosystems by controlling fish populations below them, removing the weak and the sick and maintaining species diversity. Lower numbers of sharks in the oceans creates a knock-out effect known as trophic cascade: a cascade of negative effects throughout the whole ecosystem.
It’s time we cure our fear of sharks and ocean creatures – there is nothing more calming yet energizing and beautiful than swimming in the blue ocean – and escalate our shark conservation and protection efforts – these are ancient creatures that play a key role in our environment.