No animal has a more intractable image problem than do sharks. Part of the reason is that they’re undeniably cold-blooded voracious predators with gigantic teeth. Part of it dates all the back to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster film “Jaws,” in which a gigantic Great White terrorizes a New England beach town. And part of it has to do with their prominent triangular dorsal fin protruding from the water as they swim in for the kill. No doubt about it: sharks are terrifying, particularly if you happen to be swimming in the waters they frequent.
Despite all this, sharks are crucial to the ocean’s ecosystems. As apex predators (a species atop the food chain with no natural enemies), sharks are considered a “keystone species” in the oceans’ ecosystems. The term “keystone species” carries a profound significance because it refers to the keystone atop an archway—remove the keystone and the entire arch crumbles. And what’s true for archways is true for all marine life: if shark populations nosedive, entire ocean ecosystems fall out of balance, with potentially catastrophic results. One shark researcher says:
In working with tiger sharks, we’ve seen that if we don’t have enough of these predators around, it causes cascading changes in the ecosystem, that trickle all the way down to marine plants
Realizing the importance that sharks play to the ocean helps put in context any threats they pose to humans. Despite their love for flesh, it turns out that sharks don’t particularly enjoy the taste of humans. Worldwide, sharks kill only about five people each year, which is a pittance compared to the 6000 people killed by lightning strikes, let alone the 1.2 million killed by car accidents. Meanwhile humans are responsible for wiping out upwards of 100 million sharks per year. Much of this slaughter is for a delicacy/travesty called, “shark fin soup.” These fins are cut from live sharks that have been caught, and then the crippled bleeding sharks are thrown back into the water to die.
As a result of the shark fin industry, sport fishing, and commercial fishing bycatch, populations of many shark species have fallen dramatically. One major study found populations of eight major shark species had fallen by at least 50 percent over fifteen years.
Environmental issues aside, eating shark poses some serious health concerns. Given that sharks are atop the food chain, they have a tendency to accumulate heavy metals and other toxins to a far greater degree than do other marine life. Researchers have frequently found shark meat to contain enormous amounts of mercury, at levels that are clearly hazardous to human health.
Sharks can’t seem to catch a break. Even when they get substantial media attention the results are often catastrophic. Discovery Channel’s inexplicably popular and consistently dishonest “Shark Week” series results in huge increases in the amount of shark being ordered in restaurants.