Shark Bite: What If Sharks Are Attacking Us, Because We're Finning Them?
A local woman is nearly killed by a great white shark bite. Are sharks becoming more dangerous? Or are humans forgetting their own place in the food chain?
May 18, 2017
Cape Cod, Massachussetts. August, the twenty-first century.
A ten-foot mako shark swings lightly in the breeze, suspended horizontally from a measuring gallows on the pier where a crowd of locals and vacationers stand around nodding approvingly.
From a pierce in the left chest gushes deep-cherry blood; more blood rolls out of the mouth, the jaws thrust out of their socket, forever poised in a last attempt to bite whatever was trying to kill it. The snout designed to slice through water, the rolled-back eyes, the fins nicked and scarred from some fifty years of being stronger than the thing that was trying to kill it. This time, the apex predator did not overcome its adversary.
A blond man leans casually against the gallows, jerking his thumbs up like an extremely happy hitchhiker. Phones and cameras snap, pictures flood social media. James Smith, 38, Cape Cod resident, winner of this year's shark fishing contest, with his ten-foot shark. His shark is dripping blood onto the pier, slowly rotting through the wood; many feet traffic that pier, slowly wearing through the boards little valleys, each step crunching the collapsed innards closer to the splintering point. And no one bothers to look down.
On April 29, 2017, 35-year-old Leanne Ericson was paddling out into the waters of San Onofre, San Diego, with her boyfriend. A sudden smack of teeth on skin, a loss of sensation. When she later awoke in the hospital, she was informed that a shark had bitten off much of the flesh of her right buttock upper leg, down to the bone. A group of surfers on shore, including one trained in emergency medicine, helped Leanne's boyfriend get the unconscious woman to shore where they improvised a tourniquet out of a surfboard leash. They packed towels against the wound to try to control the blood loss, which was nevertheless severe.
Within half an hour, Ericson was admitted to an emergency room, where a team of surgeons is still working to save her life and her leg. Leanne's injury was serious; the bite caused some muscle damage that could reduce her mobility in the future. Her family stated that [W]e know the situation could have been far graver had it not been for the number of emergency response personnel and others who provided the care she needed and saved her life." Other than that statement, they requested privacy (good luck with that in this day and age.)
In summer 2014, Joanna Zelman was hanging out at a beach in New York when she noticed a crowd of sunbathers of all ages huddled around some object.
Zelman took a closer look: a baby shark was wriggling in the grip of a sunscreen-coated hand, a man's grinning wife snapping pics for Insta. Several more adults and children clamored for the sweaty chance to get their picture holding the shark, which, all the while, was gasping for oxygen in the air it was not designed to breathe, shivering and thrashing, with a diminishing zeal, still trying with its slowing heart to exit the grip of humans who wanted to use its body to up their statistics on a digital abstraction, in exchange for its life. Zelman tried to convince the people to put the shark back into the water, but they continued passing the baby around for selfies until it heaved its last breath and died. Once everyone had gotten their fair chance with the shark, another beachgoer tossed the carcass into the water. According to Zelman's recounting on The Dodo and Huffington Post, a child in a frilly polka-dotted swimsuit stomped over to the offending man and said, "What'd you do that for?! I don't want any shark stinking up my ocean." Her ocean.
Somewhere in the unregulatable open ocean, a giant American fishing trawler scrapes nets along the seafloor, ripping up sand, crustaceans, flatfish, sea stars and whatever else might happen to be in the way. When the net is lifted, the useful is dumped onto ice for later sale to the mass market. The unuseful is tossed to the side, overboard, whatever.
The unuseful includes a couple of hammerheads: the clever beasts smelled a ton of writhing meat in a net, tried to take advantage, and found themselves snagged by hooks and lines. The sharks aren't very popular with the elite western market, which generally abhors the idea of killing such magnificent creatures for meat, so the fishermen just dump the asphyxiated bodies back into the ocean, as you would with any other waste. It was just a mistake; the fishers have no control over what those nets take. They are, by design, indiscriminate.
David Pickering is a pleasant Australian snorkel tour-guide – ex tour-guide, that is – on Australia's western reefs. He was leading three kids along the turtled coral garden when a shark bit his arm and swam away. Surgeons were able to restore some usage to the arm and hand, but Pickering has not returned to the sea.
A delicate redhaired young man with the piercing eyes of a Peter Pan thrust past adulthood, he looks into the camera with his tears and says that what hurts the most from his residual wound is being unable to convince himself to go back into the ocean. As he puts it, "This is what [the residual anxiety] reduces me to – when you love something so much that you can't do it anymore." Being a victim of a brutal attack by one of the residents of the community that he was entering as a guest, he doesn't want to provoke more attacks, from sharks or from the press and the land people who might think that deleting sharks from the ecosystem is a solution to the problem. It isn't.
The ocean has been ours for a few hundred years, but it has belonged to the sharks for 420 million years. Presently, sharks kill about five humans per year, while humans slaughter approximately 100 million sharks per year. Attacks are rare, with only four fatalities out of 81 total attacks across the globe in 2016. However, the number of attacks has risen along some coastlines (notably Florida, The Carolinas, Hawaii, Western Australia...) in the past several decades.
This bloom of shark attacks does not indicate that there are objectively more sharks in the ocean – rather, the few that are left, (for some species only 10% of the population of 20-30 years ago remains today) are having more difficulty finding food in the open ocean and are resorting to the dangers of the shallows to hunt seals and such prey. When a shark takes a bite out of a human, one bite is generally enough, and the animal swims away.
Chris Burn and Steve Huskey of Western Kentucky University found that a shark's tooth is designed for maximum efficacity, concentrating the PSI of each bite into the streamlined tips. Thus, it doesn't take a lot of effort for a shark to slice right through flesh and muscle, down to the bone – if a shark closes its mouth upon a surfboard with the same force we use to chow down on a sandwich, a chunk is coming out of that surfboard. And when a shark attacks a person, it is often a surfboarder, because the silhouette from beneath the board resembles a fat seal. The shark is certain it is biting a seal, and once it realizes that fiberglass and wetsuit don't taste seal-ish, it aborts the whole endeavor. This suggests that, if sharks recognize human beings for what they are, they will be much less likely to attack. To help facilitate that recognition, scientists are developing shark-deterrant wetsuits and wearable electrical field generators. These deterrants have proved very promising against some of the top species known to occassionally attack humans.
On the mud of a coastline somewhere near Senegal, a slew of sharks casual as chunks in vomit cuts a pungeant gash into the otherwise beautiful shoreline scene. Upon a closer look, you can smell the salt of the defunct gill rakers mingling with soil and confused earthworms, you can see black eyes glassed over as those of a doll in an empty shop, seeing nothing. A fly tiptoes over an eyeball. The dorsal and pectoral fins have been sliced off by hot knives, so you can peer inside some of the bodies.
Not a very complex chamber, actually, just sort of an opened fish, like any other, a purse whose contents have been shaken out and whose pink fleshy lining is beginning to devil like eggs beneath the Northwest African sun. And at least these finless bodies will be used for meat – in some shark finning operations, the body of the shark, still alive and searing with the pain of having its vital fins chopped off, is jettisonned back into the ocean, where it will slowly sink and drown, perfectly conscious yet unable to move its own body. It's like being chained into a nightmare until it becomes reality.
The fins, meanwhile, are boiled into pasta-like strands and added into broth when making shark fin soup, a status symbol of rising popularity in some Asian nations. The strands of cartelige, reportedly, could be replaced by grain pasta with hardly any difference in the taste of the soup. The mercury level would also be reduced, minimizing the danger to children and pregnant women.
If we are to venture into an environment not our own, one where we need special equipment to breathe and where our hours are limited, we need to understand that we are the privileged guests, not the all-powerful rulers of the sea. The sharks are our hosts. As long as we take reasonable measures to respect their space, through wearing deterrents and allowing open ocean fish populations to rebound from our centuries of overexploitation, these hosts will prove rather benign. After all, they don't really like the taste of us. And a change in oceangoing fashion is a small price to pay for peace, rather like the nick in the dorsal cartilege of a shark that scientists gently afflict in order to track its movements and learn more about these tragically misunderstood creatures. Every year, more fascinating information abounds, and the more we know, the better we can adapt to the world that surrounds us. As Elise Franken, another tour-guide turned shark-attack victim states so eloquently, "The longer I stay out of the ocean, the more scared I get."
Sources: "Why Sharks Attack," a PBS-NOVA documentary from 2014.
IUCN redlist webpage on shortfin mako sharks: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39341/0
"Shark Finning" informational video by Shark Academy, BlueWorldTV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jCLgTZsTMA
"The Day A Dozen Parents and Children Killed a Shark for a Selfie," article by Joanna Zelman, originally published on the Dodo, found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joanna-zelman/the-day-a-dozen-parents-a_b_5687775.html
"Single mom of three attacked by shark is fighting for her life, doctors say." LA Times article by Joshua Emerson Smith: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-shark-attack-20170506-story.html