Monday, September 26, 2011

Not So Much of a Demon After All

Sijmon de Waal/Marine Photobank.

The interaction of humans and sharks began only a short time ago, from a shark’s perspective. Sharks evolved somewhere around 400 million years ago and have been thriving on Earth ever since. In their most recent chapter of history they have encountered a new competitor, humans, who have quickly developed as a formidable foe and efficient predator. The populations of nearly every known species of shark have declined heavily in the last few decades and are still decreasing. The fate of sharks depends on our ability to turn this predator/prey relationship into a co-existing relationship that will maintain the integrity of the ocean ecosystem.
On Monday, September 19th, a group of conservationists gave up their lunch break to gather in the conference room of the World Wildlife Fund to hear Juliet Eilperin, Science and Environmental Reporter for the Washington Post, discuss her new book, Demon Fish. The goal of the book is to convince readers to reconsider their preconceptions about sharks, inform them about problems these marine animals are facing, and educate them about what can be done to help sharks. Eilperin began by talking about the perceptions of sharks throughout history and how early humans portrayed them. Many early island cultures drew pictures of sharks and displayed them always as powerful, but sometimes benevolent and sometimes dangerous - a view that Eilperin believes we should return to. The view that the public holds today is of great fear that sharks are out to attack whenever they can, which is not the case. Her research noted that the Western world forgot about sharks in the Middle Ages until seafaring journeys became more common.
The great fear of sharks started when tales were told of sailors being attacked out at sea. Very few people had ever seen a shark before, so when they heard these great tales of beasts and saw portrayals by artists - ,many of whom had never seen sharks - of violent attacks, the public became terrified. At this time in history the Ocean was very much a mystery because humans didn’t have a way to explore the depths. This thought of monsters coming up from the depths became, and still is, frightening.
In 1916, there were a string of shark attacks on the New Jersey shore, which led to the film that viewers either love or hate: Jaws. This film sparked fear into millions of Americans and has had a heavy impact on the perception of sharks in the Western world. Peter Benchley, the director, had never seen a shark before making the movie and went on to become a serious advocate for sharks before his death in 2006.
Eilperin moved on to describe current issues affecting sharks. Many people are aware of the fact that up to 70 million sharks are killed every year to feed the Chinese shark fin soup habit. Eilperin had the opportunity to meet with shark fin merchants and visited markets in Hong Kong, where 80% of the shark fin trade takes place. According to one dealer that she talked to in Hong Kong, 20% of his fins sold from the market go to restaurants in Canada. Most of what she encountered were fins from sharks that were brought in full, not finned at sea, although she is sure that it does happen more than is visible. Eilperin is most shocked by the fact that the shark fin does not add any flavor to the soup at all, its only purpose is as a status symbol.
Sarah Valenti 2008/Marine Photobank.

The ecological and scientific importance of sharks is nowhere close to being fully understood and we are learning more and more about them as research progresses. We are still a long ways away from fully understanding the marine food chain and what could potentially happen if sharks were removed from the equation. Research is being conducted to mimic some natural shark functions, such as their ability to repel barnacles, attach to the bottom of boats, and cure diseases.
Eilperin is a proponent of ecotourism to help reduce the catch of sharks, as it helps to bring in alternate income to local economies. The value of a shark alive, through ecotourism and environmental factors, outweighs the value of shark fins and meat significantly. Fishermen should realize that shark finning is a dying industry and that by switching to ecotourism they can make more money for a longer term, in a sustainable fashion. Eilperin points out that there are limits to ecotourism, and activities such as feeding must be regulated so as not to alter the behavior of animals. In Grand Cayman, locals feed stingrays at Sting Ray City so that people can swim up close and personal to them, but as a result, the rays have gone from being nocturnal to diurnal due to the feeding.

Eilperin closed explaining how people do not think of the ocean as wilderness, like they do of Alaska or Yellowstone, because it is more difficult to see the beauty. When most people look out at the sea, they see a large, blue, homogeneous area full of water and do not realize the complexity of what lies beneath. The public needs to get away from the “out of sight, out of mind” way of thinking and realize that all life on earth is connected and that every person is impacted by what goes on in the ocean at all times.
(c) Terry Goss 2008/Marine Photobank.

Written by: Aaron Jacobson.  Follow him on Twitter: @idratherbedivin

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