Andreas Späth

Sharks vs humans: who’s winning?

2016-02-15 10:10

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Reading the news last week, you might have thought humanity was losing its bloody battle with the ocean’s most ruthless killers – sharks.

"2015 sets record for most shark attacks, with 98 worldwide" exclaimed both News24 and Traveller24, for example.

The media frenzy – the term "click bait" seems appropriate – was based on the most recent edition of something called the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a comprehensive, long-running database of documented global shark attacks which has been curated by the Florida Museum of Natural History since 1958 and catalogues attacks from as far back as the mid-1500s.

As the headlines suggest, the ISAF lists 98 confirmed cases of “unprovoked shark attacks” on humans in 2015.

The use of this specific phrase deserves some comment. Unprovoked attacks are defined as “incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark”. Sounds a little dubious, doesn’t it? Like the shark is being blamed for, well, being a shark.

If you’re an animal at the very apex of your ecosystem’s food chain, a predator whose role it is to feed on others who occupy lower rungs of the same food chain, and if I, a land-dwelling human, choose to spend time in said ecosystem, am I not, strictly speaking, fair game? Am I not, in some sense, inviting – even provoking – an attack from a predator such as yourself?

But let’s get back to the scary headline-inducing figures. According to the ISAF, last year’s tally represents the highest on record, beating the year 2000 which saw 88 incidents.

The USA bore the brunt of the violence with 59 attacks, followed by Australia with 18 and South Africa with 8 (tying with 2010, but well short of the all-time South African high of 17 attacks in 1998).

The majority of news reports fail to mention a couple of rather significant qualifiers noted by the compilers of the ISAF:

- “The numerical growth in human-shark interactions does not necessarily mean there is an increase in the rate of shark attacks; rather, it most likely is a function of the growing human population. The actual rate of attack likely is declining owing to the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans”.

- “Shark populations are actually declining or holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss”.

So how many people actually got killed by sharks in 2015?

A grand total of five worldwide, none of them in South Africa, making for a global fatality rate of 6.1%. Figures that the ISAF people suggest are “remarkably low given the billions of human-hours spent in the water each year”. What’s more, “the long-term trend in fatality rates has been one of constant reduction over the past 11+ decades”. Why did these statistics not make it into widely-read news reports?

As in all previous years, of course, 2015 saw more humans killed by spiders, dogs and lightening than by sharks. In fact, more people managed to perish in attempts to take selfies.

In focusing on sensationalist headlines, the majority of news articles have missed the actual massacre that’s happening in the world’s oceans. We happen to be winning the ‘battle’ against sharks hands down.

Research published in 2013 indicates that humans are killing about 100 million sharks every year. That’s around 11 000 every hour and 190 every minute. And these numbers may well be severe underestimates.

Sharks would be excused for considering all of these killings to be the result of entirely unprovoked attacks. Many are killed "accidentally" as bycatch (eg as collateral damage during long-line tuna fishing) while most are butchered for the shark fin soup market.

The consequences are that many shark species are endangered or face extinction and that we are on track to discovering what happens to marine ecosystems when their top predator has been wiped out.

Luckily it’s not all bad news as far as human-shark relations are concerned. Some progress is being made in reducing the carnage.

Using impactful public media messages featuring celebrities like David Beckham, actress Maggie Q and former Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, for instance, an organisation called WildAid is successfully changing people’s attitudes towards sharks. Partly as a result of their campaigns, they were able to report significant reductions in the prices and sales of shark fins in 2014. Why not report on that?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Send your comments to Andreas

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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