Saturday, July 30, 2011

Man Bites Shark: a rational look at reports of increased shark encounters

For better or worse, this is the shark's time of year. Newspapers, magazines, television programming and news broadcast, and motion pictures - all forms of media jump on the bandwagon to herald the summer of the shark. Nearly one-third of my posts this month, so far, have been about sharks - and I wasn't even making a conscious choice to do so.

Fueling the annual fire this year about sharks - particularly any shark-human interactions - is the fact that there have been more human interactions with sharks. There are a multitude of reasons behind this, depending on the location and the shark species, but complex explanations are not the stuff of quick sound bites and hot-of-the-press headlines. However, without delving into the devilish details then people are left to fall back on simplistic reasons that plug into their primal curiosity mixed with fear of these animals: the number of sharks are growing; and they are out to get us.

And so, at the apex of the annual shark mania (or nadir, depending on your point of view), I present the calm, rational position statement - not from my hand but from The Washington Post's national environmental science write, Juliet Eilperin. Writing for Foreign Policy, Man Bites Shark is an overview of man's interaction with the shark world from the 1500s to today. It examines the reasons why more sharks, ranging from benign whale sharks to great white sharks, have been reported in the past few years, and why shark attacks increased by 25% in 2010.

In many respects, we are two species on a collision course. And the one steering the boat is mankind.

At first glance, sharks -- with their sharp jaws, torpedo-shaped bodies, and unusual sensing abilities -- appear to be bizarre vestiges of a distant past. But they can also tell us a lot about our present and our future. Where sharks appear in big numbers, coral reefs and other marine life around them thrive because they remove weak and sick animals from the system and can keep midlevel predators in check. When they shift their migrations, scientists often detect a shift in ocean temperatures and prey populations. For researchers seeking to create a more efficient electric battery, faster vessels, or a robot that can track oil and chemical spills underwater, sharks' sleek and extraordinarily efficient bodies offer inspiration for design. In countries where their fins end up at the dinner table, economists can generally find rising incomes. The animal humans fear most has become a global commodity, an economic indicator, and environmental harbinger of things to come.

In many ways, the movie character Matt Hooper was right on the money when he said, "All sharks want to do is swim, eat, and make little sharks." That can be said of almost every creature in the sea. It's mankind that has the multiple agendas that put us in touch with sharks, from tourism to fishing to research to storytelling.

In Man Bites Shark, Ms. Eilperin is the objective journalist, putting emotions aside - either pro-shark or anti-shark. Just the facts.

During the 20th century, the increase in shark attacks in Florida -- which leads the world in shark strikes almost every year -- closely tracked both the state's population rise and the number of people going to the beach, according to statistics compiled by the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File. In 1900, Florida's population stood at 530,000, and there was one unprovoked shark strike between 1900 and 1909; by 1950, the state had 2.77 million residents, and attacks that decade totaled 13; by 2000, when the population had soared to nearly 16 million, 256 shark strikes took place over the course of the decade.

Many of us familiar with sharks have heard this argument before: more people equals more shark encounters. Ms. Eilperin adds credibility by giving us the numbers. In addition, she adds balance to sensational reports of a mass schooling of blacktip reef sharks off Palm Beach, Florida; congregating whales sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula; or increased white shark sightings off the California coast.

Noteworthy, Man Bites Shark is not appearing at the check-out counter in People magazine; it's in Foreign Policy and so Ms. Eilperin turns her attention to the environmental and economic disaster we have visited upon the shark and some of the complex diplomatic jockeying that has been taking place amongst nations.

International trade and fishery management meetings have become a series of regional skirmishes. Japan and China have managed to torpedo trade protections at international fishery-management bodies for species ranging from hammerhead to porbeagle sharks, in part through forging alliances with smaller countries such as Grenada, Suriname, and St. Kitts and Nevis. But the United States has continued to press the case, along with both European officials and those from countries such as Palau and the Maldives, both of which have banned shark fishing in their waters.

Cheri McCarty, a foreign affairs specialist in the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of International Affairs, has spent the last two-and-a-half years negotiating over shark protections in the global arena, and she has gotten used to the weary reactions her presence can provoke. "There are times I'll go to meetings where people say, 'Oh no, not the U.S. pushing sharks again.' But slowly but surely, we have more allies on our side now."

If you are already bitten by the "I love sharks" bug, Man Bite Shark is no cure; it's a rational affirmation of a position that seems to be slowly growing. If you are on the fence and what you have been reading in the news or are about to watch on television this weekend gives you pause, then you should read Man Bites Shark, too. A little common sense between handfuls of popcorn or chewing your nails nervously wouldn't hurt.

Read Man Bites Shark in Foreign Policy.

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