When someone queried my five year old self about my favorite animal, I would almost invariably reply, “Shark!” Today, my answer would probably be the same (although, without the accompanying display where I ran around holding my hands over my head like a dorsal fin–I was a weird kid). Human meat consumption disgusts me, but I have always been attracted to these voracious underwater predators. As it so happens, living on an island in the Pacific (Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia) has provided several excellent opportunities to come face to face with these most fearsome fish. Although my aquatic adventures around Pohnpei’s barrier reef have showed a definite lack of large fish and sea turtles (a popular meal here, these creatures avoid humans to avoid winding up on a menu), there is no shortage of sharks–I’ve seen grey reef sharks, white tip reef sharks, and black tip reef sharks. These species are not dangerous to man, but as overfishing continues and the sharks’ prey becomes scarce, it’s impossible to know what–or who–might start to look tasty.
During a recent dive trip to Palau, I encountered many sharks (especially at the famed Blue Corner dive site). I also encountered the director of an organization called PangeaSeed, a Tokyo-based NGO committed to public education and raising awareness of the global need for shark conservation. Out of 360 shark species on the planet, over 100 are being commercially exploited. Sharks are often hunted for their fins (shark fin soup is a pricey delicacy in China), a brutal process in which the sharks are thrown back into the ocean to drown, alive and finless. If snow leopards or panda bears were being de-pawed and left to die, the world would be up in arms. Sharks are not like tigers, dolphins, bald eagles, and whales–they don’t have the privilege of being charismatic megafauna. Instead, people fear sharks irrationally, thanks to films like Jaws or perhaps due to the sensational media that builds hysteria after any shark attack incident. In reality, bees, snakes, and wasps are responsible for far more annual fatalities than sharks. In the US, the likelihood of being killed by lighting is thirty times greater than facing a fatal shark attack. Between 2004 and 2008, the average number of fatal shark attacks per year was four–a pretty small number. In contrast, human beings kill more than 100 million sharks each year.
Sharks are apex predators (and thus, extremely important in maintaining ecosystem balance), but to me, they seem like the underdog. Last month, five shark attacks in Egypt’s Red Sea (one fatal) have left many speculating about the cause of these incidents. The Egyptian environmental ministry caught and killed two oceanic white tip sharks, claimed the threat over and reopened the beaches–although conservations claim that these were not the guilty fish, after comparing them to photos taken before the attacks. There are several theories regarding the recurrence of these incidents, an extremely rare event. One thought is that overfishing has reduced the availability of the sharks’ normal prey, leaving them no choice but to find other food sources. This is a major concern for beach-goers and ocean lovers everywhere, as global overfishing statistics are grim. A dive instructor who has lived on the Red Sea for seven years says that sharks are not usually seen this time of year. Could climate change be to blame? What if changing ocean temperatures have impacted the sharks’ migration patterns, causing them to also change their diets? Another interesting theory on these sharks attacks involves meat–Australian cargo ships, en route to the Suez Canal, may be throwing dead carcasses overboard; the decomposing animals wash up on the beaches, attracting sharks closer to the shore. If this is true, then these shark attacks may be depicting just one more negative impact that human meat consumption is having on our planet.