As summer begins, sharks are on many people’s minds. People are thinking about them, however, in radically different ways.
Many beachgoers view sharks with trepidation, especially after 30-year old Ian Redmond was killed in a shark strike last year while honeymooning in the Seychelles. But for many of the world’s leaders, this may be the time when they’re preparing to rethink the shark.
On 20 June, Venezuela banned shark fishing throughout the 2,211 square kilometers that compose Los Roques Archipelago, a popular diving and fishing spot in the Caribbean. That same day, Maldives president Mohamed Waheed declared his entire country a marine reserve. Less than a week before, Australia created the world’s largest network of marine reserves, including a no-take area of nearly 500,000 square kilometers in the Coral Sea. This remote area is home to deepwater sharks, along with some of the healthiest coral reefs on the planet.
While sharks rank as one of most ancient creatures on Earth, predating dinosaurs by more than 200 million years, they need all the help they can get nowadays. As many as one-third of all shark species face some threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
A number of factors are contributing to sharks’ decline, including their accidental catch by vessels seeking tuna and swordfish. But much of the fishing pressure sharks face stems from rising demand for shark’s fin soup, an Asian delicacy. The needles in sharks’ fins—which become tiny noodles in this high-priced soup—are without flavour, but they now convey a sense of prestige at Chinese weddings and business meals. Fins from anywhere from 26 to 73 million sharks end up on the global market each year, according to scientists, on top of the millions of sharks which die from longlines or other fishing gear aimed at catching other species.
By contrast, an average of five or six people die each year in incidents involving sharks. Fireworks displays, toasters and vending machines each pose a more lethal risk to humans than the ocean’s top predator.
In the course of researching my new book, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” I traveled the world and saw these animals for myself, gliding through the water with grace and power. I spoke to scientists about how sharks play a critical role in maintaining the ocean’s natural balance, and how they are looking to sharks for possible inventions to make ships move faster and cars run more efficiently. Some of the nations which prize dive tourism the most, such as the Maldives and Palau, have already decided they’re better off living with sharks than without them. Maybe sometime soon, the rest of us will decide we agree with that idea, as counterintuitive as it may seem.
Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post and the author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” published in January by Duckworth. She will be speaking on 25 June during the London Aquarium's Ocean of Stars event and on 27 June at the London Zoological Society about “Our Shark Obsession".