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The ‘Jaws’ effect. Part 1

The ‘Jaws’ effect. Part 1

By Mason Sullivan

Marine Scientist and PADI Divemaster

Working as a Divemaster, tour guide, and Marine Scientist in Australia and Mexico for the last 3 years has given me a unique insight into how people from different walks of life perceive our oceans, the animals in them and the reasons for these points of view. Especially when it comes to sharks. Unfortunately, the most common place people get their information these days is via the media. It’s convenient, who wouldn’t?! Whether it be social media, television, radio or a combination of all of these, you’re not always getting the full picture. For example, if something like this blog was posted at the same time, on the same format as an article titled “Shark Attack/Sighting at *insert local beach here*” you and I both know which would get more views, no matter how exciting I try and make this post.

As a result of this there are a lot of common myths and misconceptions about sharks that others view as fact. I am going to address three of the most common ones I’ve been asked about or had said to me over the years in a series of blogs dedicated to helping people understand these misunderstood animals. To begin I think it makes sense to start, well, at the beginning.

In 1975 the Steven Spielberg summer blockbuster ‘Jaws’ was considered, at the time, one of the most terrifying Hollywood films ever made and many viewers around the world became too scared to even step foot in the water. For those of you living under a rock, ‘Jaws’ features a giant man-eating great white shark terrorising the small American town of Amity. The film made over $7.5 million dollars in the first week and has made over $260 million in its lifetime and 2 sequels. However, despite all the praise this film received, the negative effects of it’s success are being felt today. Now I can’t solely blame this movie for the negative views people have towards sharks, the issues facing sharks weren’t as prolific and well known back then. These days its mainstream media that are most responsible for spreading fear and ignorance to the public, mostly because this is how people conveniently and regularly get their information about goings on in the world around them. Sharks are generally portrayed negatively in 60% of these reports, usually in order to achieve better ratings, more site visits, and ‘likes’ by favouring entertainment through fear/shock value to upstage their competitors. I mean, with the popularity of Jaws, who can blame them! It’s just the nature of the competitive media industry beast. It may seem like harmless competition to us, BUT, words carry weight … which I hope mine will.

The reason I am writing this blog isn’t to point the finger of blame, that famously never helps address or resolve any issue. It is to bring to light some of the unknown or rarely reported aspects of sharks and their interactions with humans.

There are over 500 different species of shark in our oceans, with a new species being discovered or classified almost every month. They have been around for over 150 million years in one way, shape or form and are responsible for the way our oceans look and the creatures that we see in them today. The first image that comes to mind when someone mentions the word ‘shark’ is one very similar to the poster of a certain aforementioned film, however, sharks come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, from no bigger than a human hand, to over 12 metres long! Most tend to average about 3m and are found in all of the world’s oceans from coral reefs to deep sea, under arctic ice sheets right to the mangrove shorelines. Being primarily apex predators in their respective food chains, sharks keep these ecosystems healthy by eating the sick, deformed, slow and older animals, because they’re easier to catch! Thus, making sure that only the strongest survive to pass on their genes and the sick don’t pass on their illness to the rest of the population. Their laziness, or should I say efficiency, is responsible for keeping our oceans healthy. They’re very important for the health of our oceans … but, is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? This brings me to my first FAQ.

Number 1: Are there more/too many sharks around now than there used to be?

Now this doesn’t really have a definitive answer, like I said there are over 500 different species of shark each with constantly fluctuating populations depending on hunting, their specific ecosystems, and individual reproduction rates. But for simplicity sake we’ll talk about the ‘scary’ sharks as these are the ones people tend to refer too. The ‘scary’ sharks usually include, the Tiger Shark, Bull Shark and most notoriously the White Shark or Great White. These are the ones most known for biting humans. In 2002 Australia declared that all Great Whites were totally protected under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity & Conservation Act 1999 as they were considered an endangered species. This came about after a 1990 report found that populations had declined by 70% in some coastal areas.

A recent report conducted by the CSIRO estimated that White Shark populations have remained stable since their protection. This is consistent with the time it would take for the various protection programs and level of fishing before these measures to flow through to the adult population. White Sharks reach maturity at around 12- 15 years, which is also when they start to change their diet from primarily fish to larger prey such as seals, turtles, dolphins and small whales. Animals that these sharks often mistake surfers or swimmers for, but more about that in a future blog. What this means is we won’t see the effects of the reduced hunting of White Sharks in the adult population for at least the next few years.

There are also a huge number of shark fatalities due to:

  • Hunting (for their fins, meat and liver oil etc) » 73 million per annum worldwide
  • By-catch in nets and lines intended for other animals » 50 million
  • Sharks killed for sport.

Going hand in hand with the question of “are there more?”, I often get asked (and sometimes TOLD) there are ‘too many’ sharks. An opinion seemingly brought about by the flooding of shark related content in the media as a current hot topic and increased instances of holidaying fisherman losing their prize to the big hungry fish. The fact is sharks are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of their respective food chains. This is actually the reason why it’s highly unlikely for there to ever be too many. The limiting factor in the populations of these sharks is how much food they have available, and space. Now space might not seem like much of a factor considering the size of the ocean, but a lot of this space, as you’d imagine, is empty. This makes feeding grounds highly sought-after territory, and fish on the end of a rod a very easy target! I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty common knowledge that we are fishing our oceans on an unsustainable scale (I won’t go into it here, but I will leave some links at the end of this blog for more information). This means there is less food for us, so obviously, there is less food for the sharks and their prey. This can vary depending on the species of shark and where it lives. For example, a small reef shark in a marine sanctuary may have plenty of food because no fishing is permitted. But for simplicity sake we’re discussing the previously mentioned larger sharks specifically in this blog.

To summarise all that information;

In the CSIRO report there was little evidence to suggest there are more adult White Sharks than there used to be that would pose a risk to humans. As the time elapsed between their protection and now isn’t long enough for juveniles to have reached the size in which they would become mature and therefore begin to switch from eating mostly fish to larger prey.

As with any animal population, more sharks need more food, less food = fewer sharks. It is highly unlikely, from an environmental standpoint, for there to be TOO MANY of an apex predator in their natural ecosystem (this excludes introduced predators E.g. Lionfish in the Caribbean) they would simply run out of food if their population grew too large and would begin to decline to manageable levels. There are other contributing factors, and it is a very general statement, but this seems to be the primary reason.

I really hope you have learned a little bit from this blog post (remember, every day is a school day!) and next time you see an article or hear a media report on sharks you’ll take it with a pinch of salt. They need to add a little entertainment and embellishment to their stories in order to compete with one another, and at the end of the day they’re just doing their job.

I have included links at the bottom of the page to all my source material and if you have any questions or comments leave them below or contact me directly via my Instagram: stay_saltyphotography.

Watch this space for my next blog where I’ll be answering FAQ #2.

 

References:

CSIRO Putting a Number on Great White Populations
https://www.csiro.au/en/News/News-releases/2018/Putting-a-number-on-white-shark-populations

White Shark Recovery Plan

https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/a0dfdef5-a1ba-41a6-bd3f-8a6a0a4bdd5a/files/greatwhiteshark.pdf

Sharks in Australian Waters
https://www.environment.gov.au/marine/marine-species/sharks

Great White Shark – Smithsonian

https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/sharks-rays/great-white-shark

Shark Finning

https://awionline.org/content/shark-finning

Marine Life

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