Why Shark Attacks Practically Never Happen

Of all the things to worry about in life, shark attacks belong near the bottom of the list. In this short piece I’ll explain why sharks have gotten a raw deal, and why they deserve our protection.

Nobody can deny that sharks suffer a huge image problem. One reason is that they’re cold-blooded predators with gigantic teeth. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster film “Jaws,” convinced a generation of moviegoers that sharks love to feast on people. And admittedly, nothing is more terrifying to ocean swimmers than seeing a triangular dorsal fin protruding from the water.

But a look at the bigger picture, which we’ll review in a minute, reveals that the danger of shark attacks is massively overblown. Plus, sharks are vital to the ocean’s ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks are atop the ocean’s food chain and have no natural enemies, save for the occasional pod of orcas. This makes sharks a “keystone species” in the oceans’ ecosystems. This term refers to the keystone atop an archway—remove the keystone and the entire arch collapses. And what’s true for archways is true for marine life: whenever shark populations nosedive, entire ocean ecosystems break down. 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.

No doubt about it, healthy oceans need sharks. But what about the danger they pose to people?

Shark Attacks vs. Shark Bites

How dangerous are sharks? Incredibly dangerous, if you happen to be a seal. But hardly dangerous at all for most people.

That’s because, despite their carnivorous nature, sharks don’t particularly enjoy the taste of humans. During the year 2020, only 57 unprovoked shark attacks occurred worldwide, causing just ten fatalities. This is a pittance compared to the more than 80,000 deaths caused by snakebite a year. Even hippos kill about 500 people a year, which really puts sharks into perspective.

So by any reasonable accounting, the risks sharks pose to people are tiny. With that in mind, Oceanographers in Australia are calling to replace the phrase “shark attacks” with the less alarmist, “shark bites.” It’s clear that many of these bites are accidental, as they often occur in cloudy water.

Perhaps the biggest danger sharks pose isn’t them eating you—it’s the risks you take when you eat them. Given that sharks eat other predatory species, they accumulate heavy metals and carcinogenic pollutants to a far greater degree than do other marine animals. Shark flesh contains enormous amounts of mercury, a potent neurotoxin.

Shark Population Declines

From all this, it’s clear that exterminating sharks makes no sense. Yet humans are responsible for wiping out upwards of 100 million sharks per year.

As a result of rampant commercial over-fishing, populations of many shark species have fallen dramatically. Recreational fishermen targeting shark add to the problem. An extensive survey published in Nature revealed that shark and ray populations collapsed by 71 percent between 1970 and 2020. The Nature study blames most of this decline on commercial fishing.

Still more sharks are killed to produce shark fin soup, a popular dish in Chinese coastal cities. These fins are cut from live sharks caught by fishing boats, and the crippled bleeding sharks are thrown back into the ocean to die.

Sharks can’t seem to catch a break. Even favorable media attention often backfires. Discovery Channel’s inexplicably popular and consistently dishonest “Shark Week” series results in huge increases in the amount of shark being ordered in restaurants.

Conservation Efforts

Sharks obviously deserve our help. They’re crucial to the world’s oceans, and the danger sharks pose to humans is almost laughably small. Since the fishing industry kills tens of millions of sharks every year, you can help protect these animals simply by refusing to eat fish.

It’s an encouraging sign that twelve US states have banned the sale of shark fins, but there’s obviously much more  work to do. The shark trust is a charity set up specifically to build, “a future where sharks thrive within a globally healthy marine ecosystem.”

For further reading: please see our fish page and our Why Go Vegan? essay.
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