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Shark Week: Let’s love an animal that scares us

After more than 400 million years on planet Earth, sharks are being decimated by overfishing and the lucrative trade in shark fins.

This week marks the 25th airing of one of Discovery Channel’s best-loved educational series, Shark Week. But as human greed drives sharks toward extinction, I have to wonder if, 25 years from now, Shark Week will run on The History Channel instead.

After more than 400 million years on planet Earth, sharks are being decimated by overfishing and the lucrative trade in shark fins. Shark-fin soup, a delicacy symbolizing wealth and status in China, now sells for as much as $100 a bowl in that country. Fishermen cut off the fins, then toss sharks back into the ocean where they bleed to death.

Humans take the lives of approximately 73 million sharks a year, and threaten one-third of shark species with extinction. Brutal reports of thousands of lifeless, finless sharks found on the ocean floor, such as this report about the Colombian coast, reveal the recklessness of turning nature into a commodity.

Because sharks mature late and produce few young, they cannot possibly reproduce at the same rate at which we kill them. By contrast, shark attacks only lead to about 6 to 12 reported deaths of humans per year globally.

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Naturally, there are many reasons why protecting sharks is not the cause of choice for the average Westerner. For one thing, sharks are scary. And the centuries-old practice of eating them — part cultural tradition, part big business — is mostly happening on the other side of the world.

Most Americans don’t eat shark-fin soup, so why should they feel responsible for the slaughter that makes it possible? Besides, with crises such as hunger threatening nearly one billion people worldwide, and the dark economic cloud looming over the rest of us, we have more pressing concerns.

Those are all the very excuses that, until recently, I used.

But we can no longer afford to make excuses. Over half of the world’s people depend on the oceans to provide their primary protein sources. If hunger is a global crisis now, imagine what will happen when those food sources disappear as the marine food chain is drastically altered. Today, we risk losing sharks — and tens of thousands of other species we depend on — to what scientists are calling the sixth great extinction (think dinosaurs).

This is unique to the last five extinction periods in history for one reason: Humans are causing it by driving sharks and millions of other living creatures toward the endangered list in order to uphold tradition and economic structures. As shark numbers decrease, fin traders and fisherman may ultimately run themselves out of business, but not before other parts of the ecosystem collapse.

Americans may not be able to stop the huge demand in China, but they can cut off supply and curb demand in their own corner of the world.

Much is already been done. Last year, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act to close the loopholes of the 2000 Shark Finning Prohibition Act. Last Friday, the environmental groups Oceana and Shark Stewards petitioned the federal government to list the declining northeastern Pacific Ocean population of great white sharks as an endangered species. The genetically distinct population off the coast of California has dwindled to only about 340 individuals and is in danger of extinction.

At the state level, in 2011 Hawaii became the first state to ban the possession, sale, and distribution of shark fins. Similar laws have also been enacted with bipartisan support in Washington, Oregon, California, and Illinois. Organizations including The Humane Society and Shark Stewards are preparing to introduce such a bill in Texas. But more states must enact such laws.

Internationally, Americans can join the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and its partners by urging the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list endangered hammerhead sharks under Appendix II at the next Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES), which will make it more difficult for other countries to trade the fins and other body parts. Restrictions on international trade are in place for only three shark species — the whale shark, great white shark, and basking shark. Getting hammerheads and similarly threatened shark species listed is essential for ensuring their survival.

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We need cultural fixes, too. Most of us are programmed to feel threatened by sharks and consequently, we turn them into objects of fear. Shark Week seeks to mitigate this through science-based entertainment. In Dallas, the Museum of Nature and Science is taking the lead with its Planet Shark exhibit, closing on Sept. 16 with a talk by Shark Stewards’ award-winning shark conservationist David McGuire, who will appear on Discovery’s Shark Week Aug. 15.

Facing facts, we must confront a genuine paradox: We have to find a way to preserve a creature that scares us in order to save species essential to maintaining balanced oceans. This Shark Week, in between the suspense and thrills, we must ask ourselves: How do we ignite our moral conviction and desire for justice to protect a creature as unsympathetic as the shark?

Because the truth is, sharks should be more afraid of us than we are of them.