A classic quote, book, and film and all centred around a classic species. To quote Mr Hooper:
‘It’s a Carcaradon carcharias. It’s a Great White.’
Instilling fear in the hearts of many and conjuring images from the film about a killer shark stalking the waters off the coast of Massachusetts, the great white shark is one of the Earth’s greatest and oldest predators. When we think of this species we think of typical images: ominous triangular dorsal fins piercing the waters surface, terrified swimmers running from the beaches and ocean waters that turn blood red. A fabulous quote from ‘Jaws’ that rather summons up our fear and the stigma surrounding this species comes from the unhinged, yet oddly endearing fisherman, Quint.
“You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.”
Terrifying, harrowing, fearful, formidable and vulnerable. Wait, what? Vulnerable? Vulnerable! I know, it’s one of the last words in the great english language that you would associate with a great white shark, along with cuddly and affectionate. But ironically, vulnerable is a word that we will have to accept when we think of these amazing creatures. As an apex predator (top of the food chain) it is once again humans that find themselves responsible for their vulnerable population numbers. We try to deny it and our governments gaze into space, avoiding the issue by twiddling their thumbs and innocently yet defensively saying:
‘Shark? What Shark?!’
Shark finning is a major threat to many species, with approximately 100 million sharks being killed for their fins each year. Trophy fishing and accidental killing through commercial fishing has all brought this powerful predators numbers to precarious levels. In the 70s and 80s in particular, their populations suffered greatly. Why? Well, in 1974 the book ‘Jaws’ (have I mentioned that?) was published and in 1975, the blockbuster film was released.
The effects were catastrophic. So terrified were people of these giants, they took to the waters to hunt. Between the years of 1986 and 2008 the Shark Research Institute found that 8 species of shark had declined by 50%. A fact that led Peter Benchley, the author of the book, to regret its very production and he consequently spent the rest of his life as a campaigner for marine conservation. Although in recent years the population of the species is said to be improving, they are far from out of danger. Populations along the East Coast of America are still lower than satisfactory, with the Shark Research Institute stating that very little is known about how many great whites are actually out there.
Do I hear a sigh of relief? Phew, at least I’ll be safe on holiday! Right? Wrong! Don’t start celebrating too early, because believe it or not, we need them. Great whites are fundamental to marine ecosystem health. As the apex predator they regulate the ecosystem, much like the wolves at Yellowstone Park and without them a dangerous ‘trophic cascade’ begins. By preying on the sick and weak individuals of their prey they control populations of other species, increase the strength of the gene pools of their prey and stop diseases from spreading. Studies have shown that the removal of sharks can cause devastation to shellfish industries, with growing numbers of cow-nose rays decimating scallop populations. In addition, grouper fish populations increase, leading to less parrotfish, who are a key player in keeping coral algae free. And this is even more important, with research suggesting that coral could be important when regulating the earth’s temperature, due to their ability to store large amounts of carbon. So without this species, not only are we destroying an ecosystem, we could be destroying our climate! Save the shark, save the planet.
So whether they fascinate you, terrify you or you’re just indifferent, let’s try and have a little bit more understanding for this creature. After all, he has been on this earth for over 450 million years (100 million years before the dinosaurs arrived!). I’m not trying to imply that these creatures are not to be feared at all, shark attacks are of course very real, but they are not as frequent as we might believe.
I confess, I myself have a certain fear of this species, but I won’t let that hold me back from trying to help the conservation effort. I remember telling my mother of the attraction of the shark cage experience. This did not go down well.
‘You’re joking aren’t you!’
Said she, her Yorkshire accent echoing around the room. The look on her face was almost comical. She looked as if I had just suggested we should all jump into shark infested waters and…oh wait…scratch that.
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