What comes to mind when you hear the word shark? If it’s during Discovery Channel’s most popular program, the image is generally shark attack. This year’s week-long frenzy includes Mike Tyson vs Shark. It’s a good thing sharks don’t have earlobes, but the farcical bout is another inane example of the sensational series, promoting unfounded fright, fear and thrills, and now a wife-beating pugilist paired against an innocent great white shark.
Man against shark. Michael Phelps Vs Shark in 2019, and Tyson Vs Shark in 2020, the underlying story behind Shark Week is Man Vs Shark, and sharks are in the final round, facing a knockout.
Sharks are the oldest living predatory animal on Earth, with origins dating over one hundred million years before dinosaurs first roamed the earth. Their lineage has survived the five great extinction events, yet today, hundreds of shark and ray species are facing extinction. Sharks are threatened globally primarily from overfishing. Scientists estimate that an alarming 90% of many large species of sharks have already been wiped out. The final nail in the coffin for large migratory species, like oceanic white tips, is caused by shark finning and the shark fin trade. Surviving millenia as king of the sea, the rate of shark hunting has exponentially escalated over the past few decades by the large increase in demand for the Asian luxury shark fin soup.
Shark finning is a cruel process in which a shark’s fin is cut from its body and the shark, often still alive, is discarded and either eaten alive, bleeds out, or drowns. While the heinous act of shark finning is illegal in the United States and many countries, there is still an active shark trade within the US. Once a fin is removed, it is impossible to determine whether it was removed post-death, if the shark was caught for its meat rather and its fins, or removed from a live shark whose body now lies at the bottom of the sea.
Shark finning is just one of the multitude of threats facing sharks. Sharks are killed by the millions every year as bycatch in fishing practices targeting other fish like tuna. Habitat loss and the looming spectre of warming sea temperatures and ocean acidification from climate change are killing precious coral, displacing prey fish and making life almost impossible in an ocean full of human threats. Moreover, the economic value of shark fins in the current trade market creates a destructive incentive that continues to devastate shark populations and is adding more shark species to the endangered and threatened list. To counter this, shark fin trade ban policies are being implemented in several countries to save sharks. Thirteen US states have bans on shark fin and a federal bill is in the Senate after passing the full House.
Most shark species are slow to mature and produce a limited number of offspring per reproductive event. Some sharks take as long as 30 years to become sexually mature and are fished before ever reproducing. This means that if shark populations are not given time needed to recover after being heavily fished, they face inevitable extinction. Studies show that sharks are killed 30% faster than they can reproduce and recover their populations. A comparative study also shows that of 151 species of fish that were surveyed, 26 species of sharks are facing twice the rate of extinction of other fishes. Moreover, as sharks govern the health and fragile balance of critical marine habitats, the current rate of extinction will result in the disappearance of 19% of threatened shark species.
While some Shark Week programs attempt to elevate shark awareness, the bulk of its programming still portrays a negative image and instills fear through their Hollywood style sensationalization of shark attack reenactments and regularly referring to them as “monsters.” While many of these programs may push the narrative that sharks are not at fault and the majority of survivors feel no ill-will towards sharks, focusing on shark attacks dangerously reinforces a false narrative that this is one of the key aspects of these animals: that they seek to attack and it is part of their nature. While sharks, like most animals, can be dangerous, humans are far and away the leaders causing the decline and extinction of innumerable species over just a few centuries. Sharks are not the mindless, killing machines often portrayed in shark horror films, and whoever heard of kangaroo week? They are majestic and beautiful animals that play a critical role in the health of our planet and our own survival and well being.
Human actions have brought many shark species to the brink of extinction and their importance to marine ecosystems and the stability of our oceans are critical. Marine ecosystems intricately depend on sharks to maintain order and balance across the animal and plant species that fall below them in the food chain. Without sharks, there would be a ripple effect with catastrophic results that we truly cannot begin to comprehend beyond the concept of complete ecosystem and species collapse. This would be disastrous not only for our oceans, but for humans as well, as millions rely on the ocean for food, air and their livelihood. It is not too late. We can, and must, take immediate action to protect sharks and rebuild their populations which have been decimated as a direct result of overfishing and exploitation.
While watching Shark Week programs it is absolutely critical to remember that sharks are important and complex animals and what they fail to highlight is the dire situation they confront and the factors that threaten their existence. We can still enjoy a week of these incredible animals filling our screens with excitement and a few programs with scientific merit, while Shark After Dark offers flecks of factual flesh among the hilarity.
But we can’t lose sight of the peril sharks face every day once Shark Week ends. They desperately need our help. Join organizations like Shark Stewards to save sharks from extinction before the only sharks left will be the ones we see on our screens.