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Elissa Sursara: ”Are sharks actually prey?”

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This post originally appeared on National Geographic on June 6 2014.

Just a few hundred kilometers off the Whitsunday Islands on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I travelled with a group of scientists collecting photographs and data on the health of the porites coral. We received a frantic call from another biologist, a shark expert who believed one of his track subjects, a three year old tiger shark named Nava, had been finned and dumped nearby. Despite tracking her for great lengths most of the day, the scientist was now unable to keep a moving signal.

Arriving and diving to location two hours away, my peers and I were confronted by a massacre on the seabed. Shark carcasses lay strewn, finned and stabbed, different shark species, including the magnificent tiger shark. Over an hour, we collected dozens of samples and photographs of their lifeless, finless, mutilated bodies.

It was there, twenty-two feet under the surface, that I began to wonder who the real predators were.

Not one shark had endangered me in the hours I’d spent in their proximity; in fact, not one shark had endangered me in my lifetime as a sea goer. But in the sixty minutes I’d spent with sharks more than 10,000 had been killed by humans. And in the time it would take to boat to base, another 35,000 would die.

Brutally disfigured for their fins and meat, more than 75 million sharks are killed worldwide each year. Through sport, for food and through by-catch, humans have hunted sharks into decimation for more than one hundred staggering years. Where they once ranged valiantly in temperate coastal seas and oceans, they now exist in poor minorities, extinct in some of their historical range. According to CITES and FAO (the Food and Agricultural Organization) more than 100 of 400 shark species have been commercially exploited in our time. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the great white shark is the most endangered, with less than 4,000 remaining.

Shark fin consumption is a leading cause of decline in worldwide shark populations. The dish is served most prominently in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Shark’s fin soup, a delicacy, is the boiling down of the shark’s fin, later served in a flavored broth or soup, often with herbs or vegetables. The fin itself offers little taste and no nutritional value, but is consumed by the wealthy and by those who believe in it’s purported abilities to heal and strengthen the human form.

Shark meat or flake, sometimes sold as cod or whiting, is consumed all over the world. The meat is generally mislabeled or used as blend and is most popularly consumed by Westerners at local fish and chip shops.

Despite the devastating impact of shark fisheries, a fear of sharks themselves may be the reason for their push toward extinction and for a lack of human response. Represented by Hollywood films as ferocious man-eaters, sharks kill fewer than 10 people every year. Sharks receive little to no legal protection and relatively no protective enforcement bodies exist, despite the species qualifying as critically endangered on mass international scales.

In their bid to obtain readership, the media has perpetuated a scientifically and statistically incorrect view of sharks, misreporting encounters to represent a film-like idea that sharks moonlight as villainous hunters of bathers and surfers and fishermen.

In the United States, the annual number of people who drown is 3306, whereas the annual number of shark attack fatalities is 1.

There have been only 216 fatal shark attacks in Australia since the year 1791.

In 2012, as true as October 3rd, there were 2 fatal shark attacks in Australian waters. In 2011, there were 4. There was one fatal attack in 2010, and in 2009 and 2007, there were none. Regardless, Western Australia employs a dramatic shark cull targeting endangered great white sharks and catching sharks of all species, including pregnant tiger sharks.

Comparatively, humans killed 375 million sharks.

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