Shark Awareness Day 2018 - An Animal To Be Revered, Not Feared

Shark Awareness Day 2018 - An Animal To Be Revered, Not Feared

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on Jul 5, 2018

What’s your biggest fear? Perhaps you’re afraid of heights, small spaces, or the dark. Or maybe you’re scared of certain species such as snakes, spiders, or sharks? If you relate to the latter, stick with us – we’re here to redress this common phobia in light of Shark Awareness Day (14th July).

Sharks are, arguably, one of the most maligned creatures on earth – unlike other animals listed amongst the world’s top phobias (ducks, chickens and dogs are all ranked higher in terms of fearsomeness), attempts to paint sharks as well-loved and non-threatening remain virtually non-existent. Sure, the ‘poster-boy’ for the species may be a little rough around the edges – great whites are instantly recognisable for their sharp teeth and scarred skin – but with the odds stacked against them, it remains tricky to convince the world that sharks, in general, are really nothing to fear. Take, for example, the Discovery Channel’s now-iconic ‘Shark Week’: for one solid week, audiences in more than 72 countries will be treated to titles such as ‘Blood in the Water’ (a re-enactment of attacks which took place in New Jersey back in 1916), ‘Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives’ (a misleading – and fictitious – documentary-style film which was promoted with a jarring, graphic, and arguably irresponsible advert), and the less-than-subtly titled ‘Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever’. With episode blocks like this, it’s hard to question why so many people across the globe remain frightful of sharks – though realistically, these fears are largely unfounded.

Of course, phobias can be relatively inexplicable: buttons, balloons and beards are all pretty common fears, and it’s hard to pinpoint where these anxieties stem from. When it comes to sharks, one can at least pin the blame on blockbusters such as Jaws, the most iconic movie in a list of those designed to rattle an audience with a fear of the deep blue and what lies beneath (see also: Open Water, The Reef, and the wildly incomprehensible Sharknado). Efforts to portray sharks as anything but murder-machines seem non-existent in Hollywood: the only major film in the last 30 years to show dogs as fearful is I Am Legend, within which the dog-gone-bad only (briefly) becomes a threat due to being bitten and infected. To be clear: sharks are inherently bad; dogs are good boys and good boys only. Or so Hollywood says.

Okay, so in recent times, there has been a slight surge towards spreading shark awareness: little by little, organisations such as Save the Sharks and 4Ocean have appeared, working to raise both money and awareness to help protect this vitally important creature; elsewhere, mammoths of the industry (such as National Geographic and the WWF) have held the spotlight on sharks across an array of informative articles. But it is going to take more than a handful of organisations to highlight the extent of the problem – we must continue to have empathy for all species of shark, from the gigantic whale shark right down to the minuscule dwarf lanternshark. We must also continue to learn about and understand the impact on the ocean, all life within it, and the individuals that rely on the sea for their industry and for their home – islanders, marine nomads, and tourism-educators alike each rely on the health of the ocean, and sharks are critically important when it comes to keeping the ecosystem in check. But before we dive into those issues, we must at least attempt to dispel our fears of the species themselves.

SHARKS – SOMETHING TO FEAR?

With summer in full-swing, many of us will be flocking to the beach. Our toes will sink into golden sand and, occasionally, into the bubble-and-fizz of an incoming tide. But how many of us are likely to paddle beyond the shallows? There are few places that evoke both a sense of serenity and fear quite like the ocean: from a distance, the blue water sparkles unthreateningly. But to get closer means to lose sight of what lies beneath and, for countless individuals across the world, our minds may trick us into thinking that sharks are circling beneath our feet. It’s at this point you might like to remember: sharks are not here to attack humans, and incidents are incredibly rare. In fact, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning than to be involved in a shark attack – but do you fear the rain? You’re exceedingly more likely to meet your end by tripping over, too (odds are 1 in 127, versus 1 in 3,748,067 for sharks) – but most of us simply laugh off our tumbles.

Of course, we’re not trying to put the fear in you over the smallest things in life – quite the opposite, actually. We normalise situations like walking down the street, driving a car, and using a vending machine – but each of these things are more likely to lead to your demise than sharks are. The repetition and normalcy of tasks such as the above go some way to minimising our fears and, as stated previously, you’d never see deaths such as these characterised heavily in the media – they’re all far too mundane. Now, instead of obsessing about your untimely end in any which way (be that by shark or by a coconut falling out of a tree), consider this: we are one of a small handful of species considered to be a predatory threat to sharks, and we are also their biggest threat of all. Two of the other species sharks fear are orcas and killer whales – ironically, these are species that we as humans tend to not even think about, unless we’re reminiscing about Free Willy.

When it comes to who should be more fearful of who, it is becoming increasingly common knowledge that sharks are killed in their millions, year after year – we’ll let you learn more about this by checking out our Shark Awareness Week blog from last year, but to summarise, bycatch and activities such as finning are largely to blame for these deaths. Instead of retreading old ground, we’ll continue by exploring the reasons why it’s vital we live in harmony alongside our planet’s sharks – starting with their role in keeping our oceans healthy and well-balanced.

A WORLD WITHOUT SHARKS

Did you know that there are over 400 species of shark found in our planet’s waters? That’s a whole lot fish – and yet, you’re unlikely to ever cross their paths, unless you’re directly seeking them out. Sharks generally tend to keep themselves to themselves, with many species being solitary and most of them being active at night, rather than during the day. And yes, some of them are predatory – the great white shark, for example, will typically feed on species such as seals – but others, such as the Japanese sawshark, will spend their days feeding on the ocean floor. Whether feasting on larger animals such as sea lions or filter-feeding on tiny plankton and krill, sharks keep the ocean in balance – something which we cannot afford to go without, especially given the fact that they have been an integral part of our oceans for some 450 million years. To see species of shark disappearing now is to witness monumental, devastating change to our planet overall – and we are already seeing the beginnings of this detriment, even with regards to man-made industries such as tourism and the restaurant trade. Take, for example, a North Carolinian study: as sharks in the water began to disappear, ray populations began to grow, with the rays eating up all of the scallops and forcing local fisheries to close down (it is said that stocks have been cut by 99%). Restaurants have had to remove favourite dishes, such as chowder, from their menus since clam populations have become more sparse. The economy itself is taking a gradual hit but, bad as this may seem, it is just a fraction of the long-term damage that could be yet to come, particularly with regards to the environment.

Since many shark species are regarded as ‘apex predators’, their position atop the food chain proves vital when keeping their prey and the overall ecosystem in check. Take, for example, an Australian study: as shark numbers began to decline around the reef, mid-level predators (such as snappers) would increase, and herbivorous fish populations would decrease. With fewer fish around, algae began to overwhelm the reef system, making it much more difficult for it to recover from disturbances such as bleaching (you can read all about the impact of bleaching here). Elsewhere, sharks have been proven to encourage an even distribution of seagrass, their intimidation tactics of dugongs and green sea turtles resulting in keeping the grasses at consistent levels: in areas where tiger shark abundance is high, for example, species destined to be prey will change where they feed, moving to lower levels of seagrass or even to different plots altogether. Particularly in the case of green turtles, the grazing of seagrass blades leads to the stimulation of rapid growth and an increased rate of nutrient recycling – something which is helpful in terms of habitat and food distribution – but without the sharks to ‘move’ these turtles from plot to plot, fewer habitats and food sources would exist…meaning fewer turtles, dugongs, dolphins and so forth to frequent the area. And speaking of dolphins…well, they are largely responsible for removing old or ill fish from their populations, ultimately preventing the spread of infectious disease. Without them, fisheries, habitats and general fish populations would suffer a huge detriment – but as you can see, they need the turtles, seagrasses and sharks to survive.

Above are but a few examples to demonstrate the necessity of sharks in our waters, but they certainly point the way towards understanding why we must continue to protect these animals if we wish for our economies, ecosystems, and overall planet to survive. But other than simply adjusting our own stance on sharks, how else can we aid their survival?

SAVE THE SHARKS

Indeed, today’s article has been all about education: we’ve worked to squash any previously-held fears, looking instead towards a sense of logic and understanding. We’ve learnt about the many ways in which sharks are necessary to our planet; we’ve also discovered how they affect other members of the food chain, from the humble green turtle right through to man himself. But there is much work to be done if we wish to improve a global understanding of the animal, and one way to do that is by taking part in a shark volunteer programme. By joining The Great White Shark Project, you will have the opportunity to stamp out any misconceptions about the species, working alongside members of staff as to educate locals and tourists alike on the importance of great whites and why it’s necessary to live in harmony with our oceans. You’ll also have the ability to go cage diving, coming face-to-face with the species itself – but if this experience isn’t for you, there’s still plenty of other ways to assist! Check out our infographic below to see how you can help protect sharks of all kinds, not only on Shark Awareness Day but on every other day of the year too.

Shark Awareness Day infographic


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