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The Unfair Vilification of Sharks

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

We’ve all seen this classic scenario in movies like Jaws and Sharknado; the main characters are unfairly attacked by a bunch of bloodthirsty monstrous killing machines that can think of nothing but eating every living thing they see. As we know, this is all just a fabrication of the media. The reality is far more tragic. As of January 2024, humans now kill 80 million sharks per year, 25 million of which are threatened species. In comparison, in 2023, just 91 people were bitten by sharks and only ten of those bites were fatal. The evidence doesn’t lie. Humans kill far more sharks than sharks kill people. Why is this happening?

The first culprit is overfishing. In some regions, e.g. the Mediterranean, stocks of certain shark species have shrunk to 10-20% of their former size. A massive demand for shark fin soup and other similar products has led to more fatalities. “Shark catches amount to approximately 1.4 million tonnes per year, more than double what they were six decades ago”, says Daniel Pauly, study co-author and principal investigator with the Sea Around Us initiative at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. “This overexploitation has led to almost 60 percent of shark species being threatened, the highest proportion among vertebrate groups. Such a problem has gotten so out of hand that now more than one-third of all sharks, rays and chimaeras (a fish related to sharks and rays) are now at risk of extinction due to overfishing

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Now for the second cause: pollution. There are several hundred recorded instances of shark deaths from getting caught into drifting nets or plastic waste, although the actual number is feared to be much higher. Discarded or lost fishing gear cause the majority of the entanglements. Those do not result in immediate death but certainly raise a red flag on animal welfare concerns. Climate change is also to blame for the reduction in shark populations. As warmer ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and increased severity and frequency of storms continue to intensify, predatory species like sharks and rays have been forced to change their geographic distributions based on prey and habitat avaliability.  Warmer waters are making sharks migrate to areas they’ve never been seen before. Because marine species are also moving due to climate change, sharks that migrate back to certain areas to feed may find their food source has disappeared. 

The acidification of the oceans, along with severe weather events, are putting coral reefs, which many shark and ray species rely on, at risk. This is also true for mangrove forests, habitats that serve as vital shark nurseries. If this continues, many sharks will be left permanently without homes. If that wasn’t bad enough, as of just last month, another threat is looming. The surging market for shark liver oil, found in products from dietary supplements to cosmetics, is posing a major threat to deepwater shark species - those that dwell in the inky black waters at least 200 meters below the surface - which use adaptations such as bioluminescence to help them thrive. As Britt Finnuci, a fisheries scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research explains, “About half of all sharks are considered deep water species are considered deepwater species, and we are still finding new species of deepwater sharks all the time as we explore more of the deep ocean. He went on to say that these species “are very susceptible to overfishing because they have slow growth, late maturity and low fecundity — even more so than shallow water species. Some species take decades to mature and then give birth to only one or two pups every few years.”

This needs to stop before it’s too late. We are losing shark species and fast. For the longest time, the media has painted sharks as monsters when they are just another animal struggling against the odds. We owe the sharks our assistance in helping them thrive again. No animal deserves to be hated to the point of being hunted to extinction, least of all such beautiful predators. 


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