What is it about sharks that inspire such controversy? Sharks make good press. The very words, “shark attack” sends a chill up the spine and puts a gleam in the editor’s eye. Sharks are all over the news when there is a shark attack or when the Discovery Channel is re-enacting shark attacks on “Shark Week”. But this spring, sharks are in the news for another reason.
Sharks swim in our psyche. There is something mysterious, enigmatic and even deeply atavistic about sharks. The unmistakable shape of a shark, the open jaws lined with serrated teeth, and the shark fin is imprinted throughout human history up to modern times.
From petroglyphs in European caves, carvings in Pacific Island volcanic rocks to shark masks in a West African dance, the image of the ocean’s apex predator inspires power, fear and even virility. Cultures the world over have created myths and cults around sharks, deifying them and demonizing them. The Greek goddess Lamia was a daughter of the god Poseidon, a devourer of children and the mother of the sea-monsters Skylla and Akheilos. The Australian Aborigines have an oral history of Bangudja, the tiger-shark, which attacked the dolphin man in the Gulf of Carpenteria, leaving behind a large red spot on the rocks of Chasm Island. The Pacific Island peoples who live in close connection to sharks have elevated sharks to a God-like status. The Hawaiian amuakua symbolizes an ancestor in the form of a shark. Countless Hawaiian myths refer to the shark god Kamohoali’i serving as protector of fishermen and guider of lost canoes. The indigenous people of Solomon believe that the bodies of sharks are inhabited by the souls of the dead people.
In modern cultures, we continue to symbolize sharks: the ruthless lawyer; a cool calculating professional golfer; a quick and menacing professional hockey team. Until recent times shark encounters did not extend beyond local beach or fishing communities. With modern media and the immeasurable psychological impact of a Hollywood film, sharks rose from the subliminal depths into the forefront of our collective fear.
Jaws was a good film. It struck a chord, but it was not good for sharks. Peter Benchley spent the last decades of his life trying to undo what the film sparked. The wave of horror initiated by Jaws continues today: news stories of a single shark attack spread beyond proportion, when the true story should be man bites shark.
The fact is we are removing all large predatory fish from the world ocean at an unsustainable rate. As the consummate oceanic predator, sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing and are increasingly being wiped out as bycatch and for products like shark fin soup. Global demand for shark fin soup has pushed several shark populations to the brink of collapse. Shark finning is the cruel and wasteful practice of hacking off fins from live sharks, tossing the dead or dying animal overboard. Man bites shark at the rate of millions to one every year. In this respect man is winning, but in reality we are all losing. It has been demonstrated that sharks are essential members for a healthy ecosystem and removing them is causing an imbalance, even a collapse of complex marine communities.
But sharks are in the news for other reasons. States and countries are rising up and protecting sharks. Last year Hawaii banned shark fin soup and commercial shark fishing. The Marianas Islands, Guam and Palau have all banned shark fin sales and provide sanctuary for sharks. The Washington State Assembly just passed a bill to ban the sale of shark fin, and California has its own bill, AB 376 started right here in San Francisco to ban shark fin in our state. Other states and island nations are considering similar passage. The news is that sharks are important and we care enough to override cultural concerns about a delicacy. The news is that cultures can evolve so that the ocean can survive.
Sharks are a symbol of what is going wrong with the oceans and what can be right. Sharks are symbols of ocean health. It’s time to dismiss the man-eater myths, push back the soup bowl and start protecting sharks for a healthy ocean and healthy humans. Living sharks are valuable to the ocean ecology and to human cultures across the Pacific. It’s time think like a sea steward for all ocean life, including the shark. This is why sharks are the Sea Stewards symbol and the motivation behind the Shark Sanctuary Initiative. It is why we are supporting AB 376 and will be celebrating sharks on World Oceans Day in June 2011. Let sharks live!
Find out more about what legislators are doing for shark protections and the passage of the Shark Fin Bill.