Shark Blog 1: Myth-busting Sharks

Sharks in Greece

Let’s cut right to the chase: YES, there are sharks in Greece. If that sends a cold thrill down your spine then you’ve got it all wrong. Toasters, coconuts, peanuts, hot dogs, cows … these are some of the things that should strike more fear into your heart than sharks. Thanks to sensationalized stories and negative stereotyping, sharks have become feared rather than revered. “They’re labeled as dangerous, indiscriminate killers that eat anything in sight” [1]. This is very far from the truth. Continue your read and find out why these ancient creatures deserve so much more our admiration, respect and, above all, protection. This blog is the first in a series of two. In the next blog we will zoom in on the presence of sharks in the Mediterranean.

SHARKS WERE HERE FIRST. Or at least, way before we appeared on the surface of this planet. Sharks have been around for about 400 million years. “Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, sharks hunted through our oceans and even in some rivers and lakes” [1]. Sharks are such good survivors that they have had little need to evolve in the last 150 million years or so. Homo Sapiens, the modern-day human, has only been around for 125,000 years. The earliest members of the genus Homo evolved around 2.8 million years ago.

Whale Shark Snorkeling

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THE VAST MAJORITY OF ALL SHARKS ARE HARMLESS TO HUMANS! There are approximately 432 species of sharks in the planet’s oceans and seas, subdivided across various families of shark. These families are very different in the way they look, live and eat. “Sharks are opportunistic feeders, but most sharks primarily feed on smaller fish and invertebrates” [2]. Some of the larger species feed on seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals. Surprisingly, the largest sharks tend to be the most harmless. The Basking Shark, the Whale Shark and the Megamouth Shark are all gentle giants. These huge sharks eat plankton, a tiny shrimp-like creature found in the ocean, filtering them from the water with their ‘gill rakers’ as they move through the sea with their mouths wide open [3].

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SHARKS DO NOT LIKE US. WE ARE NOT PART OF THEIR NATURAL DIET. Contrary to past belief ‘flavor’ has nothing to do with this observation. Most sharks are happy to eat ‘any’ red meat that comes across their path. Rather it seems that an evolutionary appraisal of risk versus reward has sharks sticking with their established diets. Sharks are “seemingly well aware of the fact that the composition of the human body isn’t an ideal food source for them and also aren’t keen on the fact that, when bitten, humans have a tendency to fight back around a very sensitive and vulnerable region of said shark’s body” [4].

The real reason behind sharks biting humans is curiosity. When sharks encounter an unfamiliar creature that might be a potential food source, they’ll sometimes be inclined to investigate more closely. This is supported by the observation that in most encounters with people sharks approached cautiously often leaving it at one bite whilst their normal hunting pursuit is much more explosive. But as renowned shark biologist Dr Erich Ritter notes, “The unknown is always potentially dangerous and - even for the shark - harbors a certain risk. Approaching or biting the unknown object is thus an exception and not the rule!” [4]

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THE CREATOR OF ‘JAWS’ LATER BECAME A PASSIONATE DEFENDER OF SHARKS. Many will recall the epically terrifying images of a killer shark unleashing bloody chaos on a small rural beach community. Whilst the release of Jaws introduced the world to the concept of summer blockbuster movies it also scared a generation of cinemagoers out of the water for fear of an encounter with the ‘teeth of the sea’. Peter Benchley authored the bestselling novel and blockbuster movie … and then spent the rest of his career struggling to protect sharks from the negative stigma that his masterpiece unleashed on sharks [5]. Benchley advocated respect and protection for sharks until his death in 2006. Today we are still ‘correcting’ the many misconceptions that especially the media have created about sharks.

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A GLOBAL AVERAGE OF 10 PEOPLE DIE EACH YEAR FOLLOWING A SHARK ENCOUNTER. Of the hundreds of species of shark only about a dozen are known to have actually ‘sunk’ their teeth in human flesh. Those that have are listed below, starting with the shark with the most victims to date:

1. Great White Shark
2. Striped Tiger Shark
3. Bull Shark
4. Blacktip Shark
5. Sand Tiger Shark (Grey Nurse Shark)
6. The Wobbegong Shark family
7. Hammerhead Shark
8. Spinner Shark
9. Bronze Whaler Shark
10. Blue shark
11. Blacktip Reef Shark
12. Oceanic Whitetip Shark / Shortfin Mako Shark / Lemon Shark

And guess what! With the exception of the Lemon Shark, Blacktip Reef Shark, Bronze Whaler Shark and the Wobbegong Shark family, all of the sharks listed above can be found in the Mediterranean Sea.

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WE, HUMANS, KILL BETWEEN 7,100 TO 31,000 SHARKS … PER HOUR! That amounts to 63 to 273 million sharks killed every year with many species increasingly threatened [7]! This is not a sensationalized claim but a broadly accepted fisheries statistic. So who is the bloodthirsty killer on this planet? Furthermore, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group 31% of sharks and rays are threatened. Sharks are targeted for their meat and liver oil, but the biggest threat is shark finning.

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SHARK FINS ARE SOLD FOR AS MUCH AS $650 PER KILOGRAM. Shark finning is the brutal but lucrative practice of cutting the fins off sharks and discarding the finless animal back into the ocean. Often the finless shark is thrown back into the sea alive, sinking to the bottom unable to move and dying a slow, cruel death. Ancient Asian traditions and the high commercial value of fins is what is keeping this practice going. Europe plays a big role. Spain, for example, is one of the leading manufacturers in the world of unprocessed shark fins.

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PEANUTS ARE DEADLIER THAN SHARKS! As are many, many other things we cross paths with in our daily lives. Here’s an overview of global annual causes of deaths that you may find somewhat surprising if not shocking.

Obesity (overweight) 2.8 million*
Humans (homicides) 734,000
Mosquitos 725,000**
Falling down 646,000*
Lightning strikes 240,000
Snakes 50,000**
Dogs 25,000**
Tsetse flies (African Sleeping Sickness) 10,000***
Crocodiles 1,000***
Toasters 700
Elephants 500***
Hippopotamuses 500***
Airplane crashes 345
Peanuts 150-200 people in the USA alone
Falling coconuts 150
Icicles 100 people in Russia alone
Selfies 90 (... and on the rise)
Sharks 5-10
* World Health Organization
** BBC

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SHARKS ARE SLOW BREEDERS. They do not mass produce like most fish do. Instead they invest a lot of energy into producing a few, well-developed young having between 1-100 pups at a time depending on the species of shark. But it takes years for sharks to grow and mature to a point where they start reproducing. “As an extreme case the Greenland Shark can live ~400 years and doesn’t reach sexual maturity until ~150 years” [8]! Many Greenland Sharks are killed before they’ve even had a chance to reproduce! Sharks also have long pregnancies averaging between 9-12 months. “The Greeneye Dogfish has the longest recorded pregnancy at 31 months” [8]! Lastly, sharks may not reproduce every year. “Some species have a resting phase of 1-2 years” [8]. So … if you do the maths then you’ll quickly realize that at the rate at which we are ‘harvesting’ these amazing creatures now it will not be long for shark species to start disappearing … forever.

Ocean Ramsey (Juan Oliphant)

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SHARKS PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN MARINE ECOSYSTEMS. Sharks are apex predators meaning that they are at the very top of the trophic pyramid (food chain). The presence of sharks is a good indicator of a thriving marine ecosystem as it shows that there is abundant prey to keep a shark community nourished. Similarly, sharks help to keep the lower layers of the trophic pyramid in balance, ensuring that none of the layers grows ‘out of control’. They help remove the weak and the sick as well as keeping the balance with competitors helping to ensure species diversity.

The drastic decline in shark numbers is bound to deprive coastal communities in many countries of livelihoods, food, and tourism opportunities. Sharks are already influencing the economy through ecotourism. “In the Bahamas, a single live reef shark is worth $250,000 as a result of dive tourism versus a one time value of $50 when caught by a fisherman. One whale shark in Belize can bring in $2 million over its lifetime” [9].

WE NEED TO ACT. For starters because there is no way of justifying the slaughter that is presently being committed on this amazing creature. “Major declines in shark stocks have been recorded in recent years - some species have been depleted by over 90% over the past 20-30 years with a population decline of 70% not being unusual [3]. Secondly, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the huge discrepancy between the number of annual shark deaths and their natural ability to reproduce is bound to lead to extinction of species. Thirdly, it is my guess that you would like your children or grandchildren to observe these amazing creatures in their natural environment.

VOTE NOW! YOU CAN HELP SHARKS RIGHT NOW! Citizens and environmental organizations from across Europe have united in an initiative to end the shark fin trade in Europe. 1,000,000 signatures are need by 31 January 2022 to formally propose a legislative amendment. If the required number of signatures is reached within the period, the European Commission is obliged to react. This Citizens’ Initiative follows a formal protocol of the European Union that requires you to submit various bits and pieces of personal data to confirm your status as a European citizen. It is not just a petition. Just remember that a few minutes of your time can help save millions of sharks! Click HERE to cast your vote to Stop Finning!

I can’t stand the thought that we or any would become the generation that destroys 400 million years of evolution. It should not happen. It must not happen. - Peter Benchley (Author of Jaws)

[1] Shark Facts vs. Shark Myths
[2] Do Sharks Hunt People?
[3] Sharks
[4] Do Sharks Really Not Like How Humans Taste?
[5] How the Creator of ‘Jaws’ Became the Shark’s Greatest Defender
[6] The Deadliest and Most Dangerous Shark Species
[7] Frequently Asked Questions: Sharks, Rays, and Chimaeras
[8] Shark Reproduction
[9] The Importance of Sharks
[10] WILDAID Interview Peter Benchley