Thursday, August 20, 2009

So... Why Sharks?

It is a much repeated narrative... I recant it time and time again. It invariably follows the question "What do you do?" and my answer, "I work for the sharks." After processing this response (usually unable to hide the shock and disbelief), "So, why sharks?" is blurted out. Or at least, that is the polite response I can share.

So why, with all of the other issues on the planet and with my 'client's' horrendous reputation for destruction, why on earth do I fight for sharks?

When you know the full story about sharks, it is really quite easy to understand.

While most people are aware of the plight of the charismatic ocean creatures, like the dolphins and whales, few know, often blinded by misguided fears, of the shark’s current fate. Sharks are disappearing at an alarming rate – their numbers down by 90% in some regions – with many species facing extinction during our lifetime. The IUCN released shocking numbers last month that over 1/3 of all shark species are threatened - with more to follow over the next several years. Over one hundred million sharks will be killed this year. That’s 11,432 every hour.

Out of sight out of mind.

Few know about this issue, because it happens so far away from us. Out in the oceans, in countries few of us will ever journey to, for a reason that is foreign to many of us.

And few of us care, as sharks have evolved into terrifying monsters that ironically, while often times fueling a mass hysteria, really only exist within our collective imagination. And thus, most share the inaccurate sentiment “the only good shark is a dead shark”.

Say the word “shark” and most people immediately imagine a bloodthirsty monster worthy of a “Jaws” remake. As a society, there are few things we fear more than sharks, with shark attacks consistently ranking as one of the top three most-feared natural dangers in most studies. Dip a toe in the ocean and you will be torn limb from limb. This makes it difficult for many people to understand why sharks are worth saving – let alone take measures to do so. And thus, countless animals continue to disappear without us noticing or caring.

But, the man-eating monster is a myth that Hollywood and the media have created in order to increase ratings and sell newspapers. Actual attacks far outpace reports – as do the severity of the incidents. You are more likely to be killed in a hunting accident, lightening strike or sand pit than a shark. In 2007, one person worldwide was killed by a shark bite. During that same period, 793 people died due to bicycle accidents and 49 died due to dog bites. Of the over 400 species of sharks, only a handful have been linked to any incidents with humans – that is less than 5% of all shark species. Indeed, the vast majority of sharks are harmless to humans.

Misunderstood and mal-aligned, the stakes at hand are life or death – not just for the sharks, but also our oceans.

The frightening reality is, like them or not, sharks play a crucial role on this planet. Remove sharks from the oceans and we are tampering with our primary food and air sources. And the livelihoods of millions that rely on the oceans for their main source of income. Sharks are a critical component in an ecosystem that provides 1/3 of our world’s food source and more oxygen than all the rainforests combined.

As the apex predators of the oceans, the role of sharks is to keep other marine life in healthy balance. Remove sharks and that balance is seriously upset. Studies are already indicating that regional elimination of sharks can cause disastrous effects including the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs.

An animal hunted.

In addition to the factors challenging all marine creatures - pollution, destruction of habitat, and elimination of food sources - sharks face an even more urgent threat: the demand for their fins are skyrocketing increasing their value exponentially. Indeed a single whale shark fin can sell for upwards of $50,000 USD. As the demand for shark fin far outweighs supply, no sharks are safe from desperate fisherman – sharks everywhere – even the handful that are protected and in the few areas that are protected - are under attack.

The incredibly lucrative market for shark fins is driving the slaughter. And this extinction trade full of greed and corruption is often likened to the illegal drug trade, as it is rife with murder, mafia, and millions of dollars. Fisherman desperate to feed their families will stop at nothing and are being driven to extremes, though it is only a handful of individuals who are benefiting – at an incredible cost to all of us.

It is a race against the clock to save these animals – and ourselves - from a looming demise. And those of us who fight for them clearly have their work cut out, having to take on the hardest public image campaign on the planet while at the same time battling desperate, violent foes... only the foes aren't the ones with the fins. But this fight, which few can or will take on, is a fight of the utmost urgency. And that is why I work for the sharks.