3.5 metre female great white shark

Why should we protect sharks?

In the ocean-interested community that I move in (loosely defined by facebook interest groups and pages, twitter feeds, encounters at public talks and on dive boats, and chance meetings on the jetty), we’re all exposed to an enormous amount of rhetoric about sharks and the need to protect them and the marine environment. Unfortunately, much of it is just empty posturing, or designed for maximum shock value, low on content. None of this – to my mind – counts as a conservation effort by any of us. Marine conservation does not entail sharing a picture on social media to a group of people who already understand the need to conserve the marine environment, or writing articles that get published on a website only visited by scuba divers. (Case in point… I am not doing marine conservation right now; I am just writing a blog post.)

Sadly, even conservation efforts that appear to be (slightly) more legitimate than hashtag activism fall short. The channels of thought that people fall into when they are asked why it’s important to take care of the ocean and its toothy inhabitants (assuming they do think it’s important in the first place) are well-worn and – sadly – have been revisited so often as to have become almost devoid of utility. Like the repeated sharing of a  picture of a finned shark within a tiny community that already cares about the ocean and is already outraged, endlessly repeating the same early vintage justifications for preserving sharks is a tactic that achieves very little, if anything at all.

Most people, including my mother, who has less than zero interest in the marine world, can probably trot out the standard arsenal of arguments usually supplied in defence of sharks. We are told (often using the following exact phrases) that sharks are misunderstood, that they are not mindless killers, and that humans aren’t on their menu. Taken to an extreme, this line of reasoning leads us to a caricature of sharks as non-threatening, innately friendly animals whose intentions are tragically misconstrued by ignorant humans. Humans are, it is claimed, driven into a shark-murdering frenzy by sensational media reporting that wrongly emphasises sharks’ dangerous nature.

This exaggerated description holds a grain of truth about sharks and a grain of truth about humans, but overall it is a dangerous caricature to broadcast. Sharks are not friendly, and the larger species (the ones that leap to mind when someone mentions sharks – as opposed to shysharks, say) are apex predators, brilliantly adapted to rule their environment. They are fast, intelligent, and dangerous by virtue of their many, sharp teeth and acute senses. If you are in their realm, you are at a disadvantage. Sometimes sharks bite people, and when they do, shark advocates (I hate that expression) who have built their platform on the innate benignity of sharks will be wrong-footed and face a possible loss of credibility. The general public may not be aware of (or care about) any subtleties related to the reasons why a shark has bitten a person, and trying to justify shark protection measures after an event in which someone has lost their life (or limbs) is very difficult if all one has to fall back on is that “it was a misunderstanding.”

3.5 metre female great white shark
3.5 metre female great white shark

Sharks do not merit protection from humans because they’re beautiful, or because they are vital for the healthy functioning of ocean ecosystems, or because they don’t breed fast enough to immunise themselves against the modern industrial fishing complex, or because they are misunderstood. All of those things are absolutely true. But the ultimate reason that sharks – and all living creatures – deserve our protection, is that they exist (despite us), and they are different from us. They are with us on earth, and they have a place here.

Henry Beston, in The Outermost House in 1928, wrote this about animals in general, and I think it speaks beautifully about the nature of sharks:

In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.

Juliet Eilperin, whose book Demon Fish first showed me the Henry Beston quote above, puts it wonderfully in the introduction to her book:

Often we value things in the natural world because we see ourselves in their reflection: in how they sing, raise their babies, or travel across the countryside. On rarer occasions – when we marvel at the improbable journey of the albatross or the way male lions live apart from females – we prize them because we define ourselves by how different they are from us. But sharks matter because they exist apart from us, not because of how they stand in relation to us.

… 

Sharks are worth understanding in their own right, a source of revelations about a foreign world that abuts ours.

This thinking rescues us from trying to paint sharks as something they’re not, and from trying to find a “selling point” or special aspect of virtue for them. They aren’t as cute as panda bears, or as easy to interact with as dolphins, or as accessible – through the lens of domestic cats – as snow leopards. None of this matters, however, when we acknowledge that their mere presence in our oceans entitles them to guardianship from us.

Here’s hoping for some dialogue about sharks that grows beyond the trite and oft-repeated catchphrases that reduce them to the marine equivalent of sulky teenaged boys – “so misunderstood” – into something thoughtful and nuanced that gives them, and us, our rightful places in the environment. Sharks won’t be the only beneficiaries of such an expanded philosophy.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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