Loving what lurks below: Why we save sharks

(originally posted 4 August 2011 on Conservation International’s blog)

This past Sunday night, my younger brother Nate and I settled onto the couch to watch the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” continuing a tradition stretching back to family beach vacations many summers ago.

As we watched some cringe-inducing, manufactured melodrama starring some guy pointlessly risking his safety to “see what a shark might do,” Nate asked me: “Have you ever wondered why there is a ‘Shark Week’ but not a ‘Tiger Week’ or a ‘Wolf Week’?” Good question.

 A related question is why did “Jaws” fundamentally change the collective societal psyche about venturing into the ocean for a swim, but “Anaconda or “Piranha will more likely induce laughter than terror? I think the answer is that no other animals evoke such a wide and deep range of emotions and reactions in people as sharks do.

I’ve been in tropical jungles at night and thought about jaguars, and on an African savannah and wondered about lions. But those unique experiences were only possible in certain places. On the other hand, anytime I enter the ocean, anywhere on Earth, I think about sharks.

As I float, swim or dive through the water, I am struck by how poorly adapted my senses are to being underwater. My vision is blurred, hearing is muffled, smelling is impossible, and movement is laborious, slow and awkward.

As I struggle to get comfortable in my salty surroundings, I think about how this is pretty much the opposite experience that a shark has. These murky waters — filled with electric vibrations reverberating the sounds of my herky-jerky paddling, nervous fish and the ocean swells — are their home. They could be anywhere.

For humans, sharks have a powerful allure that goes beyond the fact that some species can injure and kill us. If it were this simple, we should be more afraid being couch potatoes (odds of dying from heart disease: 1 in 3) than swimming in the ocean (odds of dying in a shark attack: 1 in 300 million). I think the allure reflects a struggle between humankind’s primal fear — and love — of the world’s most ancient predators. We recognize that we are out of place in their world, and thus we admire them for their power, beauty and predatory prowess.

Unfortunately, we humans can also be ruthless predators, and not even sharks have escaped our reach, as shown by the illegal shark ‘massacre’ in the Galapagos National Marine Park reported last week. Sharks worldwide are targets of vast overfishing to supply the enormous demand for sharkfin soup, a delicacy served at high-level social and diplomatic functions in Asia, particularly China. Tens of millions of sharks are killed annually to supply the global demand for fins and meat, as well as other products.

But there is a flip side to this dire situation. Sharks are also valuable to humans for non-consumptive reasons, and this gives hope for shark conservation efforts around the world. Opportunities for people to delve beneath the ocean’s surface to share watery space with sharks are driving a global ecotourism industry valued in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Benefits of shark ecotourism also extend throughout communities, creating revenue and jobs for local people. Put simply, live sharks are worth more money through non-consumptive uses like tourism (not to mention the benefits of healthy shark populations to marine ecosystems) than they are as one-time products for consumer markets.

A recent global assessment of shark ecotourism highlighted sites with the highest number of shark-focused ecotourism operations, as well as their economic values. All of these sites occur in countries with laws on the books that regulate shark finning. In fact, three of these countries — Maldives, Palau and Honduras, as well as another major shark tourism hub, the Bahamas — recently declared national shark sanctuaries, prohibiting all shark fishing in their waters. And in an exciting new development, a group of governments in the western Pacific Ocean announced this week that they would work toward creating the world’s largest shark sanctuary that would ban shark fishing and any trade in shark fins.

Altogether, nearly 20 countries (and counting) as well as several international fisheries management organizations regulate shark fishing and/or finning within their jurisdictions. Although this means the vast majority of countries in the world have no laws protecting sharks, and the market demand for consumption of shark products rages on, these are significant victories for sharks, the oceans and the people who depend on both.

Despite the upstream swim still facing shark conservation, I agree with the cheery outlook offered this week by Juliet Eilperin; the tide is beginning to turn. The visceral connection we all feel toward sharks — whether heart-pounding fear or awe-filled respect — means that we value their existence, and we’d rather have them lurking the depths as they have for millions of years.

Even if the thought scares us a little.

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