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Setting the Record Straight on Sharks

Britta Jahn
March 5, 2003

Environmentalists have warned for years that shark stocks are declining with frightening speed. Now, a lobby of shark lovers is shaping up to save the sharp-teethed creatures, in part by improving their mean image.

Not as menacing as it looks: A white pointer sharkImage: AP

The shark is every beach vacationer’s worst nightmare. It approaches its unsuspecting victim stealthily, closing its jaws quick as a flash over the frolicking bather. This notion of the shark as a bloodthirsty predator -- as popularized by the movie and book Jaws -- is as innacurate as it is prevalent. It also diverts attention from the fact that sharks are dying out.

Scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, recently warned in the journal Science that the number of sharks has diminished by more than half in the last eight to 15 years in the northwestern Atlantic. The stocks of the much-feared white pointer shark have shrunk by 80 percent along the coasts of the United States and Canada, the researchers say. Although the scientists are unable to draw conclusions for the entire Atlantic, the trend is alarming.

Chaos without the shark

Haiforscher Erich Ritter
Shark expert Erich RitterImage: AP

If the shark were to die out, the ocean’s creatures would be subjected to an environmental disaster, shark researcher Dr. Erich Ritter (photo) told DW-RADIO. Since sharks are at the top of the food chain, they are the "top controllers" of marine wildlife. Without them there would be chaos in the lower levels. Sharks act as a sort of manager and "without a manager the factory falls apart," the zoologist says. The environmental balance would be destroyed.

Worried about the animals’ future, Ritter established the international initiative Sharkproject to protect and research the shark. The organization, which is made up of divers, scientists and shark lovers from throughout the world, is a sort of public relations agency for sharks. Among other things, it investigates their behavior and attacks on people to better understand the way sharks and humans interact. Sharkproject also makes films about the interaction between humans and sharks to counter the belief that sharks are simply aggressive predators.

Shark fin soup and bycatch

Experts have pinpointed three main reasons for the decline in shark stocks: over-fishing, disputed fishing methods using longlining and shark hunting.

Sharks don’t eat humans primarily. Instead, they live from fish and seals, and they need rich fishing grounds to survive. When fishing fleets fish out the food supply, sharks starve, say European Union experts.

The Canadian researchers, however, believe the main problem is the use of longlining, a technique that uses thousands of hooks to catch tuna and swordfish. However, sharks are often lured in by the bait, too. They get accidently pulled on board along with other fish and dumped nearly dead back into the water. The World Wildlife Fund reported in a December study that 12 million sharks die each year as so-called bycatch.

Additionally, sharks are hunted for their own flesh in a brutal manner. The European Commission denounced the widespread practice of finning in mid-2002. The fins are cut off the sharks while they are still alive, then the animals are thrown back into the ocean to die painfully. The fins end up in Asian shark fin soups, while there’s little demand for the rest of the shark.

Not a man-eater

Despite these disturbing developments, the shark’s fight for survival hardly makes the headlines as compared to the "cute, media friendly” dolphin. That's because sharks have a bad reputation, say the growing shark fan clubs around the world that lobby for the misunderstood animals. Associations and private initiatives as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are counted among their ranks.

It's obvious that lack of information has damaged the shark's reputation badly. After all, if statistics are to be believed, it’s much more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than to die from a shark attack. Scientists, too, now think they know why sharks sometimes go after surfers: Seen from below, a surfboard with paddling arms looks just like a tasty seal.