Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Shark Encounters and Fear Mongering

Sharks have been particularly unfortunate in attracting bad media coverage over the years. Arguably, movies such as 'Jaws' only added fuel to the fire, creating a generation of kids who could not help but have an irrational fear of a shark biting an important part of their body off- no matter what water body they were in. If you weren't one of them, well then, congrats. I only recently overcame my fear of swimming in the open ocean even after being an accomplished swimmer for many years. This is because I found out that sharks are very low on the list of things that could kill me in everyday life.

Why is it that hippos have a cute and cuddly image of the friendly fatty when they are responsible for almost 3000 deaths in Africa alone per year? Around 40 people per year die because of dog bites, 20 from horses and a similar figure from cows. Well to be fair, that's a tiny fraction of the number of cows that die because of our steak cravings (sigh). Not just animals, texting while driving kills 6000 people per year, icicles falling cause around 100 deaths in Russia alone and 6000 people die from tripping and falling at home each year (you don't even need to leave the house). There are many more such examples but they all just point towards one fact: sharks aren't as big a threat to human life as they are made out to be, not even close. They have just been unfortunate in being the subject of perpetuating fear among the masses, grabbing headlines and also playing lead roles in ridiculous 'mockumentaries' (See: Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives).

I live in Australia so obviously stories of shark sightings and shark encounters make top news on a regular basis. However based on records, there have been 975 shark attacks in Australia since as far back as 1791. Out of these only 231 have been fatal. That's roughly a quarter. Does this figure justify policies such as the shark cull initiated by Western Australia (WA) last year? Any rational person would say no. Thankfully the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) felt the same and have recommended the WA Government to abandon the policy this summer. However this action came a little too late since between January to April this year, 172 sharks were caught out of which 68 were shot. Little barbaric to say the least. The average fatal shark attack in Australia still remains at 1 person per year and to avenge this figure, we promptly killed 68 members of this threatened species.

The silver lining that came out of this was that the widespread protests by people in Australia created quite a stir worldwide and more people researched this subject: leading to better awareness and better judgement. This is also an important way forward. We must invest in furthering our understanding of sharks and research on non-lethal ways to protect ourselves in the ocean. Fear mongering media-tactics must be shunned and spoken out against. Better judgement must prevail.

Besides, look at this picture of this shark without sharp teeth, not so scary now right?

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