Another week and I find myself amidst another environmental issue that i feel strongly about. On Monday a Canadian woman was non-fatally attacked by a shark in Cancun. The main shock of the situation was that it occurred on a crowded beach and in waist deep water. This has begun a media frenzy that will no doubt circulate the world and begin a ‘too hunt or not too hunt debate’.
Id like to cast your mind back to a much closer to home incident that occurred in the beginning of December last year. A series of shark attacks occurred in the holiday resort Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, this lead to one death and three serious injuries. However the events that occurred after may have had a more devastating impact on the local population of sharks. The attacks led to a series of shark hunts which attempted to capture the offending shark. However two innocent sharks were officially killed and many others may have been unofficially killed. Volunteers reported a number of shark carcasses in the water which were unaccounted for so the number of sharks killed remains unknown.
Attacks of this nature are very rare. The likelyhood of being attacked by a shark is less than being hit by lightening and repeated attacks by a single shark is almost unheard of. The reasons behind the attacks were most likely due to fishing pressures or feeding the sharks in order to attract them to dive sites. Changing the shark’s behavior can cause them to become dependent and act in unusual ways. This kind of story reminds me of a similar situation which has been on the rise in the UK, dog attacks! The number of attacks by dogs has been hitting the headlines increasingly and has usually been accountable by owner mistreatment and the increase of unpredictable dog species. However this does not cause dog hunts in towns killing all dogs that might possibly be a threat, so why retaliate in this way to ward sharks. Dog’s usually only attack vulnerable victims similar to sharks. If sharks are forced from their hunting areas, attracted by feeding or sick, it may cause the sharks to come closer to shore to look for easier targets, like a slow swimming human lazing on the surface looking incredibly like an injured seal.
If we look at the statistics I think it’s only fair that we let a few shark attacks slide a year. The numbers barely seam fair, in 2010 ten people were fatally injured by sharks, whilst around 100,000,000 sharks were killed by humans! So when we look at it from the shark’s perspective it makes the attacks seam a lot less significant!
In the case of Cancun, the shark was probably sick, pregnant or desperate, to come in so close to shore. The questions we should be asking are not how to get rid of the sharks, but what drove the shark to the shallows and this should be the issue tackled. There used to be a healthy shark population in this area of Mexico, part of which was a seasonal migration by large numbers of bull sharks. However in recent years these numbers have declined rapidly. Most of the information is rumors, but it has been heard that a large number of these sharks have been caught by fisherman and this has severely impacted the diving tourism which in previous years attracted large numbers to dive with the sharks. Although this industry was self destructive as the sharks were directed to one feed spot to increase probability of encounters on dives. This population of sharks never appeared on their usual migration this year for unknown reasons, maybe they were all killed or maybe they shifted their migration pattern. But it is impacts like this that cause pressures on shark populations and lead to out of the ordinary and maybe dangerous behaviors.
Sharks are a declining and endangered family. One of the main causative agents is their long life history cycles. For example if we look at the Blue shark, one of the most commercially exploited species in the world. The Blue shark reaches sexual maturity at around 4-6 years and has gestation times of around 9-12 months, so an average shark will only produce 25-50 offspring every 2 years and many of these will not survive to sexual maturity. This species has declined by around 60% in recent years due to bycatch and target fishing. Many other sharks have even longer life histories than the blue shark. Sharks have now become the most valuable and vulnerable ocean species.
So what can we do? Firstly realize that Jaws was a film, this is not how sharks act in the real world and when the rare occasion occurs of a shark attack or several occurs, it is rarely one culprit, and when It is it is due to some serious issue in the sharks health or habitat. Secondly don’t promote the fear factor, sharks are not blood thirsty killers, we are visitors in their world. Thirdly don’t promote shark population decline, don’t buy shark products including foods and medicines. Finally, don’t participate in non natural tourism activities such as baited shark dives. Although you can actively seek to dive with sharks naturally, an activity I would recommend as they are beautiful creatures to experience underwater and that this encounter may in future years become a very rare indeed, with the extinction of many species predicted as early as 2017.
So all that is left is to prey that this new shark attack does not create a hunting frenzy like we saw little over a month ago in Egypt, and to reiterate that sharks really have the short straw and that we need to fight to protect their future.