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Be afraid for sharks, not of them

By: Lindsay Graff, Shark Biologist and Broadreach Instructor High School Adventures, College, Scuba, Marine Biology

The shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors. —Peter Benchley, creator of Jaws

There is no other animal on Earth that can strike such emotional and polarizing discord within groups of people than sharks.

Emotions can range from fear to awe to reverence, with most people leaning toward somewhere between the first two. The fear is brought about for a number of reasons, but fingers can be pointed toward the way the media have misrepresented and portrayed sharks in the last few decades, stemming from the original Jaws to the more recent dramatizations seen during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and the short lived blockbuster TV hit, Sharknado. Shark Week is loved by the masses, but is it loved for its celebration of the beauty that is found in sharks, or because of the fear that it instills in its watchers while recreating famous shark attacks?

Misconceptions and sensationalism can get in the way of helping the public understand the importance of sharks in today’s marine ecosystems.

In the Shanghai news a few years ago, a 32-foot whale shark was pictured hanging dead from a crane. The writer of the article stated that the image should serve as “a steady reminder to never go in the ocean,” insinuating that the whale shark was dangerous and a threat to our safety. This was a painful reminder of how people are still so misinformed about sharks, and another example of the negative way that sharks are portrayed in the media. The two largest shark species, the whale shark and basking shark, are actually both slow-moving filter-feeders, meaning their diets solely consist of plankton, krill and small invertebrates, much like humpback and other baleen whales. Although their sizes can be intimidating, these two shark species are hardly a threat to anyone who decides to take a swim.

Humans are a much greater threat to sharks than they are to us.

For every one person killed by a shark, there are approximately 25 million sharks killed by humans. Due to the high demand of shark fin soup, overfishing and sharks caught as bycatch, about one-third of all shark species are threatened with extinction. We need healthy shark populations to help keep marine food webs in balance, keep prey populations healthy and to protect important marine ecosystems like coral reefs and seagrass beds. Our hope for the future of sharks lies in the hands of scientists, conservationists and in people who value the importance of sharks and healthy oceans, such as scuba and shark divers. People who take the time to learn more about sharks, beyond what the media or Shark Week show, and those who experience them in person through diving, will learn to love and appreciate these animals in a way that a few of us do now.

An improved understanding of sharks will help counter the current negative public perception and put the focus on shark conservation instead of eradication. The most rewarding part of teaching high school and college shark courses is when students leave with a newfound appreciation for these animals and a proper understanding of their importance in the marine world. It’s encouraging to know that there are just a few more people out there who can spread their love for sharks to the rest of the world.

Lindsay Graff has led the Broadreach Fiji: Shark Studies program since 2012 and has an extensive history in shark conservation, including working on Project Great White Shark in South Africa and shark tagging projects in Florida and the Bahamas.

*UPDATE: A few weeks after this article was originally published, BBC News did a piece on shark conservation that featured Lindsay Graff and the Broadreach Fiji: Shark Studies program. Hear what she has to say about the impact of programs like ours in the lives of students around 23:00.