Sharks in Perspective: From Fear to Fascination

I remember quite vividly seeing for the first time the movie “Jaws.” It was the summer of 1975 and, like everyone else, it scared the bejeezus out of me. In fact, for two reasons it had more effect on me than most. First, I was a very active scuba instructor at the time and I knew right from the opening scene — the famous and ill-fated night swim — that I’d probably be seeing fewer students than normal in courses that summer. Secondly, one of my favorite dive sites was a shoal off the coast of Delaware known for its summertime aggregation of sand tiger sharks. After the movie, I knew that I’d never dive there again with quite the same nonchalance.

Even the author of “Jaws,” Peter Benchley, has admitted that he never imagined his book — and resultant movie — would hit such a raw human nerve. Today, recognizing the visceral and unwarranted fear he instilled — and the decimation of shark populations he inaugurated — Benchley is paying his penance as an ocean activist. He now champions the cause of shark conservation, even serving on the board of advisers for Environmental Defense on shark and marine fisheries issues.

Twenty-seven years later, science now has a more accurate image of sharks. Yet, the question still remains: Have the attitudes of the public really changed from the summer of “Jaws” to, as Time magazine dubbed 2001, the “Summer of the Shark”?

Of course, sensationalism and the press go together like peanut butter and jelly, and news editors rarely allow minor details like facts get in the way of selling newspapers. So last summer, when I heard about the incident in Pensacola where a child had his arm bitten off by a bull shark, the shark was wrangled from the water and dispatched with a revolver, and then the kid’s arm was miraculously pulled from his attacker’s stomach and reattached surgically, I knew that we were in for a roller coaster ride of sensational press coverage that would warm the heart of William Randolph Hearst himself. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The “summer of the shark” certainly sold millions of newspapers and magazines, led to the ban on shark feeding in Florida, and terrified untold numbers of beachgoers around the world. But the truth of the matter, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, is that the number of attacks both in the United States and in Florida was almost identical to the previous year, and the international total was 11 percent lower than that of 2000. Even more surprising, the number of fatal attacks was less than half the yearly average over the last decade. A far cry from the frenzied public perception so well-stoked by the press.

In direct response to the “summer of the shark” hyperbole, on June 12-14, 2002, the conference, “Sharks in Perspective,” was held in Tampa, Florida. Sponsors included the Florida Sea Grant Program, University of Florida, and Florida Museum of Natural History. More than 100 participants attended, including scientists, divers, fishers, government officials, conservationists, researchers and the general public. Its purpose was to put the risk of shark attacks in perspective by providing information to news media, out-reach professionals and the public with a brief background on shark biology, the risk of a shark encounter and issues related to shark fisheries management and conservation. The program was a follow-up to a national news conference and press briefing with the same objective held May 21, 2002, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Presenters at the seminar were drawn from the National Audubon Society, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Florida’s shark research division, the United States Lifesaving Association, Florida Sea Grant, Florida Marine Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, and California State Parks. What follows is a synopsis of conference segments on the issues relevant to divers: shark conservation, shark attacks and shark diving. (See the sidebar for a full program overview.)

Shark Conservation: A Change in Perspective

After a brief introduction, the seminar began with speaker Mary Camhi, acting director for the Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program. Her presentation, “Shark Therapy: A View From the Other Side of Jaws,” was an enlightening starting point. Sharks, Camhi says, suffer from an identity crisis. They are one of the most feared and maligned creatures on earth, yet they’re also among the most valuable and important species in the ocean. She reiterated the concern described several times in past Dive Training articles: About 100 million sharks — that’s 1.6 million metric tons — are killed (half as incidental bycatch) in fisheries each year. Only decades ago these creatures were considered of such a low economic value that fishers rarely wasted time catching them. However, sparked by the growing economic prosperity in Asia and the concomitant demand for shark’s fin soup, shark products are now among the most expensive seafood items in the world. (In Hong Kong, the industry center, dried shark fin sells for about $130 a pound, and a bowl of soup for around $90.) In particular, the demand for fins has fueled global shark fisheries and led to the despicable practice of finning (cutting off the sharks’ fins and throwing the remaining 95 percent back in the water, often still alive and writhing). This has led to serious overfishing and decline of shark populations, with some prized species now down to less than 20 percent of the numbers of only two decades ago.

Camhi reiterated the biological Achilles’ heel of sharks — their low reproductive capacity, slow growth rate and late sexual maturation. They produce a few young, with many species bearing from two to 12 offspring. This low reproductive capacity makes sharks extremely vulnerable to overfishing and requires not years but decades for populations to recover. Ironically, in the United States, the shark fishery was promoted by federal fisheries managers as a way to counteract dwindling stocks of other finfish species. In what she termed a “recipe for disaster,” Camhi said that, in addition to their vulnerable life history and high demand for fins, overfishing is exacerbated by a poor state of scientific data and a general lack of fisheries management. Add to this the growing human population, and prosperity of Asia, and there’s no mystery why sharks’ populations are careening headlong toward disaster.

Camhi also countered the common claim of shark fishers: How can sharks be in so much trouble if global catches keep going up? The answers are both simple and alarming. In reality, increased numbers reflect better data reporting, increased fishing effort and technological improvements. The increases are merely an artifact of what are termed “boom and bust” fisheries. Reports of increased catches occur when a fishery for a particular species is relatively new, but then it soon after crashes. The reality is that due to increasing demand, but abysmal management, the nearly 40 species of sharks targeted in worldwide fisheries are now depleted or severely overfished. The World Conservation Union places 16 species on its threatened list; six are candidates for listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act; and the American Fisheries Society suggests that there are 11 stocks in U.S. waters at risk of extinction.

Of the 125 nations with fisheries, only 20 have addressed sharks specifically. And only four have comprehensive plans for specific species. Only six nations, including the United States, have banned finning. On the good news side, Camhi said, sharks are finally on the radar screen of fisheries managers, conservation groups and the general public.

Within the United States, which banned finning in 2000, there are now shark fishery management plans in the pelagic and western Pacific. And a plan for the Pacific (off California, Oregon and Washington) has been drafted. Even many coastal states now have shark management plans. Camhi told the audience, however, that the ban on finning in U.S. waters simply means that when sharks are taken, the entire carcass must be landed. It in no way restricts selling or taking the fins. This increase in the amount of space taken up in the boat’s hold, and potential for the high urea content of shark meat to spoil more prized catch such as tuna or swordfish, reduces the appeal of taking sharks with little commercial value other than their fins. Camhi’s take-home message was very simple: To save the world’s shark populations we need a change in perspective. We must understand that humans, not sharks, are the apex predator.

America’s Shark Story

Next, Margo Schulze-Haugen, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species Division, provided an overview on “Research, Regulations and Relationships: The Three R’s of Shark Conservation and Management.” After reviewing a NMFS mandate to protect U.S. fisheries and habitats — including sharks — Schulze-Haugen related the economic importance of sharks. Within U.S. controlled waters in 2000, commercial fishers landed 35 million pounds (15.8 million kilos) of sharks worth $11 million. Recreational fishers caught an additional 400,000 sharks that same year. Likewise, the United States exported 2.4 million pounds (1.08 million kilos) of shark products worth another $5 million. Aside from stressing sharks’ economic value and importance to fisheries, Schulze-Haugen emphasized an important point often missed in fisheries management debates: Sharks don’t merely belong to the fishers; “sharks belong to all of us,” she said, and aside from commodities, sharks have “existence value” in and of themselves. This was a refreshing attitude for a fisheries biologist and government regulator.

Examples of nonconsumptive use of sharks included: recreational catch-and-release fishing; the ecological role sharks have in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem; and, at long last recognized, the tourist value of observing and diving with sharks. Also emphasized was the particular conservation challenge facing sharks due to the highly migratory nature of many target species. The audience was also given an overview of the status of shark fishery research, and the legal structure by which government managers operate. In particular, she said, the Magnuson-Stevenson Fishery Conservation and Management Act mandates that the federal government rebuild overfished stocks, protect habitat, reduce bycatch and develop stakeholder advisory panels. From this mandate, NMFS has developed the National Plan of Action for sharks, calling for increased data collection, regular assessments, review of management measures, mitigation measures, outreach, reporting and, if necessary, fishing capacity limits.

Schulze-Haugen then reiterated some history of U.S. shark fishing, starting in the 1970s when the attitude was “the only good shark is a dead shark.” (Thank you, “Jaws.”) By the 1980s, at NMFS’ initiative, commercial shark fishing expanded, and the consequence of the sharks’ low reproductive capacity became apparent very quickly. By 1993, NMFS developed a shark fishery management plan consisting of three groups of sharks. It determined that large coastal species were already overfished, meaning that their numbers were not where they should be. Small coastal species were fully fished, meaning that fishing was probably all right but should not increase. The status of pelagic species was essentially unknown. To date, in the Atlantic, the NMFS fisheries management plan includes a rebuilding program for large coastal sharks, harvest limits on commercial and recreational fishing, and a ban on catches of 19 species and on recreational catches of juvenile sharks. These regulations are not without opposition, however. Six lawsuits have been filed opposing the government actions. To date, new stock assessments have just become available for small coastal sharks, and will soon be released for large coastal sharks. An assessment of pelagic sharks is due out in 2004.

In the Pacific, fewer species are targeted than in the Atlantic and less is known about them. It appears that the blue shark population is healthy, and that the common thresher and angel shark populations are in recovery. Also under development in the Pacific are harvest guidelines for short fin mako and common thresher sharks. An outright ban exists on the West Coast on taking white, megamouth and basking sharks. In Alaska, shark management is dealt with under its fisheries management plan for other ground fish.

While progress is being made domestically, shark conservation efforts are likely to have little global effect unless applied to all shark fisheries worldwide. Here, the United States is at least playing a role. The United States has been a key player in developing the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, which went into effect in 1999. The Plan of Action calls for sustainable shark catches in all fisheries worldwide, assessment of stock status, special attention to the most vulnerable species, and minimizing bycatch. Unfortunately, only the United States and Japan have completed national plans of action, although the United States is assisting several other countries in developing such plans. Bilateral meetings have occurred with fisheries management regulators in Japan, Spain, Taiwan, Canada, China, Mexico and the European Union. In all, after decades of inaction and wrong action, the United States appears to be doing a responsible job in managing its shark fisheries. But, unfortunately, the rest of the world still has a long way to go.

Shark Attacks: Fact and Fiction

Perhaps the most highly anticipated presentation was by George Burgess of the University of Florida Museum of Natural History. As the director of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), which is based at the university, Burgess soon became the media darling during the “summer of the shark,” and still remains the most sought-after interview on all matters relating to shark attacks. Beginning with a global perspective, Burgess showed that the three areas of the world with the highest number of attacks since 1965 are the United States (754 attacks, with 48 fatalities), Australia (323 attacks, with 149 fatalities) and South Africa (293 attacks, with 76 fatalities). Not surprisingly, given their coastal nature, states within the United States showing the highest number of attacks are Florida (474 attacks, with 20 fatalities), California (111 attacks, with nine fatalities) and Hawaii (100 attacks, with 21 fatalities). An equally expected result is that shark attacks in these three states correlate directly with centers of population and with the popularity of surfing (surfers are the primary shark attack victims).

Burgess also discussed an important implication of the data collection process, which if not taken into account, falsely shows that shark attacks have increased precipitously over the last two decades. Specifically, between 1968 and 1988, the ISAF was not well-maintained, or, as Burgess put it, “was in mothballs.” Thus, the rise in attacks after 1988 are directly attributable to vastly improved data collection when the file was moved to the University of Florida Museum of Natural History. He also admitted that data collection is best within Florida because that’s the location of the ISAF, and because of the close working relationship he has developed with Florida’s beach lifesaving community. Using data from Florida, California and Hawaii, he presented convincing evidence that the rise in shark attacks is directly correlated to increasing numbers of both residents and tourists. In other words, more attacks are occurring because — surprise, surprise — more people are entering the water.

Clearly, unlike the ludicrous idea perpetuated by recent articles in newspapers, pundits like Rush Limbaugh and from some segments of the shark fishing industry, shark attacks are not increasing because conservation measures have increased the number of sharks. Given the reality of shark reproductive biology, such a quick recovery is a biological impossibility.

Fatality rates also show an encouraging trend. From 1900 through 1999, the ISAF has recorded 1,844 shark attacks. Through the first half of this century, fatality rates ranged between 30 and 50 percent. As a result of better and faster medical attention, the fatality rate is now about 18 percent. Still, as Burgess said, “shark attack is largely a phenomenon based on human activity patterns rather than those of sharks.”

Finally, there was good news for divers in Burgess’ review of Florida shark attack victims. There has been very little change in the number of attacks on us over the past 40-plus years. While attacks on swimmers have increased slightly, the data clearly show that the No. 1 attack-prone activity isn’t diving or even swimming, but surfing. So, hanging ten is still the quickest way of eventually hanging only nine.

Shark Feeding in Florida

From a diving perspective, the most anticipated presentation was by Roy Williams, assistant director for the Division of Marine Fisheries of the FWC. Although, according to Williams, commissioners saw logical arguments on both the pro-feeding and anti-feeding side, they ultimately concluded that “feeding marine life disrupted the natural behavior in feeding habits of fish and condition them to associate food with humans.” And citing as a rationale both conservation and public safety, as well similar feeding prohibitions for alligators and bears, the commission voted to ban all fish feeding, including sharks, in November 2001.

After a brief review of shark feeding, and a short history of events for those not familiar with the issue, Williams went on to explain the complexity of the issue, and how the FWC went back and forth, first from an anti-feeding stance in September 1999, to a pro-feeding stance a year later, then finally deciding on the ban that went into effect in November. Demonstrating the complexity of the issue, Williams said, “Even I got pulled both ways on this emotionally — probably sat on both sides of the issue — and in the end I’m not sure how I might have voted.”

In the end, even though FWC staff presented guidelines to commissioners to allow feeding, Williams said “(commissioners) changed their minds by then and decided that it was simply an inappropriate activity to be conditioning the sharks to accept food from humans — they were concerned for the sharks themselves and concerned for associating humans with food.” He immediately followed up his comments on the ban by assuring attendees that it was still perfectly legal to fish for species such as yellowtail snapper using chum, and that the ban had no application to fishers — only to divers.

Williams emphasized that the commission’s decision was not made based on the frenzy created by the “summer of the shark,” but instead was a carefully considered decision culminating from a two-year process. Frankly, this conclusion is hard to understand given the chronology. In fact, prior to the “summer of the shark,” commissioners were very supportive of the dive industry’s efforts to develop feeding guidelines. By September, after the FWC staff had revised industry guidelines, commissioners were clearly leaning toward a pro-feeding decision, provided it was done under appropriate management. In the final analysis, as lawyers often say, “it strains credulity” that the unanticipated and abrupt change in attitude among commissioners was not influenced by the media hype generated by the “summer of the shark.”

Williams concluded his session with a brief question-and-answer session. One query posed was exactly why the practice of feeding, as asserted by Williams, was “dangerous” for the sharks? Williams said sheepishly, he “did not have a good answer for that,” and fell back on issues relating to the quality of food provided. Again, this is far from the truth. The reality is that there was no dispute between the FWC and dive industry regarding the issue of the type of food — including its freshness — provided to sharks. This and other misrepresentations are easily clarified by reviewing the guidelines developed by the industry group that developed the initial feeding guidelines.

While the purpose of the seminar was to place the true risk of shark attack in perspective, there was no one on the program involved in shark diving. This seemed odd in that this is the community with the most direct experience with sharks in the wild, and who has clearly demonstrated that the commonly perceived risk of shark attack is a falsity. Still, many shark diving professionals and others who are active in combating the Florida feeding ban were in the audience. One comment by Bob Harris, the dive industry’s attorney in the lawsuit against the state opposing the fish-feeding ban, was of particular note. He challenged Williams’ and the FWC’s rationale on the safety and “association of food with humans” issues. Citing data provided to the FWC, Harris reiterated that shark feeding dives are not a new phenomenon. They have, in fact, been going on for more than 30 years; there are almost 300 shark diving operators worldwide; and about 100,000 divers annually participate on these dives. Furthermore, it has been shown that about 1.5 million divers dive on the same sites used by fish-feeding operators, and that the number of attacks at these sites, or within one mile of the sites, is zero. Thus, Harris asked, how can the State still allege the danger of associating food with humans? Similarly, Harris challenged the FWC’s rationale for the ban in terms of its supposed “alternation of the sharks’ natural behavior.” If that is indeed a concern, said Harris, why wasn’t the practice of chumming questioned on a similar basis?

Harris went on to emphasize that the problem the dive industry has with the FWC ban is the issue of fairness. He said that there would be no dispute by the industry if the ban were applied across the board — to include fishers — and not to single out divers. Williams attempted to counter this by saying that resource managers often draw a line in what they do and do not prohibit. He used the example that it is still legal in Florida to feed robins and rabbits, but not bears. What he did not explain, however, was how someone chumming for yellowtail snapper ensured that their bloody fish guts would only attract snappers and not sharks. Like much of the logic used to justify the FWC ban, Williams’ argument held about as much water as the Sahara desert after a rainstorm.

There were also some enlightening — and not-so-enlightening — presentations from lifeguard agencies, municipalities who operate public beaches, members of the press who report on shark attacks and fishers from both the commercial and recreational communities. While space limitations don’t allow coverage of all discussions, additional information about the seminar appears at www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/sharkperspective.htm.

Perhaps the most sobering statement of the seminar was made in a presentation by renowned shark expert Dr. Bob Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory Center for Shark Research, in his introduction to the discussion, “Media Perspective.” Hueter said that the “summer of the shark” was the first time since the premier of “Jaws” that he has been asked by people, “what good are sharks, anyway?” If this is any measure of how far public awareness has come since 1975, and how well the media serves the interest of our marine environment, then all I can say is that I’m sure glad that I’m not a shark.

By Alex Brylske and Deborah Street