Thursday, 20 November 2014

Jaws: the impact of media on shark declines by Rachel Baxter

One of Hollywood’s favourite villains, sharks have always been dubbed as horrifying man-eaters. However, this is more fictional creation than fact, and as shark populations rapidly decline, are creations like ‘Jaws’ partly to blame?  

In 1975 when ‘Jaws’ hit our screens, sharks swam into the spotlight as malevolent killers lurking in the deep. Following the film’s release, shark fishing increased rapidly, especially in the USA, as many wanted to emulate the heroic protagonists, whilst others wanted to cull sharks to make the seas safer. This reduced shark populations and 40 years later they are still deteriorating, due to overfishing for sport and meat, particularly for use in shark fin soup, a traditional Asian delicacy.

Scientists estimate that shark finning kills up to 100 million sharks a year. Finning involves catching any shark, regardless of species or size, and removing its fin and discarding the body back into the water. This is often carried out whilst the shark is still alive and subsequently leaves the animal to die a slow and painful death. The heightened demand for shark fins is due to increasing prosperity in Asian countries such as China. This has resulted in a higher demand for expensive delicacies like shark fin soup, which costs up to $100 a bowl. Consequently, the value of shark fins has soared, meaning that thousands of sharks are killed for their fins daily. As a result, many shark species such as tiger sharks and hammerheads have experienced population decreases of over 90% in recent years.

Sharks are an apex predator throughout the world’s oceans. This means that they are at the top of the food chain and significant decline in their numbers has the potential to impact nearly every organism living in our seas. One issue is that in the absence of shark predation prey species populations will proliferate, thus decimating populations of their own prey. An example of this is already occurring in the eastern Pacific Ocean, spanning from California to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. The decline of sharks here has led to a huge increase in Humboldt squid, a predatory species of squid whose populations were historically controlled by sharks. However, due to the reduction in their natural predators, their populations have expanded rapidly and this is having an impact on fish stocks, as the squid will consume nearly any fish that they come across. The true impact of shark declines is still unknown but it is likely to change population numbers of a vast variety of different species and seriously upset the balance of marine ecosystems, all over the world.

Therefore, the conservation of sharks is key. Current conservation efforts include discouragement of shark consumption, especially in shark fin soup through methods such as petitions. Also, more and more sharks are becoming protected. In 1991 South Africa became the first country to protect great white sharks. Furthermore, many countries, including the UK, have now implemented restrictions on shark fishing and finning. Therefore there is hope for sharks, but attitudes need to be changed in order to increase support of conservation efforts.

To change attitudes, it is essential that people understand that sharks pose very little danger to humans; in fact we pose much more danger to them. Whilst an average of 4.2 humans may be killed by sharks each year, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually. There are over 400 species of shark, whilst only 4 of these species have ever been involved in attacks on humans (great white, tiger, bull and oceanic whitetip), yet almost all shark species are affected by fishing. In fact, the chance of a shark attack is minute. Millions of people swim in the sea every year whilst only about 4 fatalities occur annually. In contrast, every year 150 people die due to falling coconuts, 10,000 die by lightning strike, and 24 are killed by flying champagne corks!

What’s more, many shark attacks on humans are thought to be accidental. Shark attacks often occur on surfers. This is because from below, a surfboard with four legs resembles the shape of a seal. In fact, sharks are never out to get humans, as we are not their natural prey. Humans are much larger and bonier than prey organisms such as fish and seals, and wetsuits are not part of a shark’s ideal diet! Also, the vast majority of shark attacks on humans involve only one bite. This is interesting as hunting sharks use an initial bite to weaken their prey, and then use further bites to kill. This indicates that most sharks that attack humans immediately realise that they have made an error, and consequently back away. So, is the revengeful, human-hunting shark from ‘Jaws’ simply an entertaining invention?

It is true that ‘Jaws’ is based on real events; the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916. These attacks involved four fatalities and one injury during the summer of 1916 off the Jersey Coast in North America. However, scientists concur that these attacks were a freak incident, and the same scenario has never been repeated. Ironically, Peter Benchley, the author of ‘Jaws’, became a keen shark conservationist, regretting his portrayal of sharks as monsters as it had such a significant impact on the world’s perception of them.

Perhaps, one day, films will undo what they have done and depict sharks in a new light. Swimmers will no longer be haunted by ‘ba-dum ba-dum’ and more people will be concerned by shark declines. This could reduce shark fishing and improve attitudes towards conservation, so that shark populations are saved before it is too late and the balance of our oceans changes forever.