By Lillian Shapona
Cam Grant via Pinterest
Jaws. The Shallows. Bait. The Black Demon. Shark Night. Sharknado. Do any of these titles ring a spine-chilling bell? Sharks have been the subject of demonization in mainstream media since Steven Spielberg’s famous 1975 film birthed a sub-genre that would evolve into a deadly bias. The trope is simple enough: the ocean is the pleasant playground of the innocent human or adorable animal until a vicious great white spots it from the deep, swimming silently up towards its clueless prey as suspenseful music jolts the observer’s pulse into overdrive. The fear of “shark-infested” waters that these films elicited and the horror stories of people losing limbs and lives to sharks along coastlines around the world molded a society with very little sympathy for sharks.
Shark bites kill an average of ten people out of eight billion worldwide (Oceana Europe) each year, while human beings are responsible for the murder of roughly 100 million sharks annually. Many of these deaths occur for the sake of shark fin soup, but the market for shark meat and oil has also been increasing over time. Shark populations have decreased by 70% in the past 50 years, and very few organizations are taking action on this issue because so many view them as fearsome predators that pose an enormous threat to everything in their path. The reality is that the majority of already rare shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. For a shark accustomed to hunting larger marine creatures such as seals, a wetsuit-clad swimmer paddling near the surface looks deceptively like their natural prey from below. Most shark attacks on humans are not followed by consumption; sharks frequently abandon the bitten person upon the realization that they accidentally chomped on a human instead of lunch (The Inertia).
Despite how sharks are depicted in popular culture, they play a crucial role in numerous ocean ecosystems. With fossil evidence tracing sharks back as far as 400 million years ago, it is fairly easy to conclude that these creatures are important to our oceans. As apex predators and keystone species, sharks are responsible for the regulation and maintenance of every marine species population that falls below them on the food chain. Without their presence in marine ecosystems, their prey would overpopulate to the point of severe imbalance and eventually reach collective extinction. The absence of sharks would put millions of people working in the fishing and seafood industries out of work, permanently impacting our oceans, and thus permanently damaging our entire planet.
There is no such thing as “shark-infested waters”; the ocean is the sharks’ home, and they kill to eat just like humans do. These creatures are to be respected and protected, not killed for the sake of fear. Organizations such as the Shark Conservation Fund and small businesses like Finatics are bringing attention to this issue and doing all they can to help, but we must all work to break down our internalized prejudices toward sharks and reach an understanding of their importance to save our seas.