In Defense Of Sharks

<p>Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank">Steve.garner32</a></p>
<p>Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank">Steve.garner32</a></p>

Humans have an innate mistrust and fear of sharks, fed by movies like "Jaws" and the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" (the most-watched Shark Week clips include "South America Shark Attack," "The Nightmarish Megalodon" and "Cannibalistic Baby Sharks"). A few recent high-profile attacks have only increased that fear, and in Australia, where swimmers often interact with sharks, the government recently began a culling program to kill sharks. But we don't need to fear sharks, and we certainly don't need to cull them.

The focus on shark-as-enemy ignores that many species of these fish are intelligent, social animals with much more in common with us than we think. A landmark 1975 study found that lemon sharks complete a classical conditioning test for intelligence about 80 times faster than a cat. The porbeagle is one of the few fish to engage in suspected play behavior, wrapping itself in kelp and knicking around pieces of driftwood. Lemon sharks and blacktip sharks have both been seen exhibiting preference for particular other sharks -- having friends, in other words -- and learning from each other. Not bad for an animal that, in some cases, has been unchanged since 100 million years before the dinosaurs.

The danger of shark attacks is also wildly exaggerated and over-reported. Even people attacked by sharks defend them. The most telling statistic is simply that sharks rarely attack people and even more rarely are those attacks fatal. Despite says/">headlines like "Shark attacks -- and attack fatalities -- up worldwide, expert says," annual fatal attacks haven't hit double digits in the past decade. The International Shark Attack File, affiliated with the Florida Museum of Natural History and considered the authority on worldwide shark attacks, says there were 82 unprovoked attacks worldwide in 2010, 78 in 2011, and 80 in 2012. In 2012, seven of those attacks were fatal (one in the United States), which is up from the average of 4.4 over the past decade, but still an absurdly small risk.

In the U.S. in 2012, rip currents killed about 100, boat accidents killed 651, lightning killed 28, about 3,800 drowned and alcohol killed 88,000. It's also worth noting that by the most conservative estimates, humans kill about 100 million sharks a year, which is doing untold damage to the seas.

The species of shark targeted by culling programs are apex predators -- the wolves, bears, and lions of the sea. Depletion of apex predators throws the entire ecosystem off balance. Studies have shown that without sharks, mid-level predators become overpopulated, and the food they eat vanishes. We lose important food sources like scallops, Quahog clams, herring and pollock. Coral reefs become dead zones. The seas get dirtier, and with a loss of seagrass thanks to an overabundance of animals that eat it, even the air becomes less breathable. Bycatch from the process of culling sharks has casualties of its own; a dolphin was found dead in a culling net just last week. And that's just what we know now; the loss of an apex predator rarely has predictable or limited effects on an ecosystem.

It's fine to make jokes about the supposedly relentless man-eating shark, be they of the intentional B-movie basic cable variety or in The New Yorker. But it's more important to really understand these animals that share our planet, that keep our oceans healthy and our fishermen employed, that experience the world in ways we can't even imagine.