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You know it’s summer when you start reading panicky headlines in the media about sharks. This week alone we’ve been told that “megasharks” have grown to “insane sizes” and we’ve been warned that “the world’s deadliest sharks” are heading to the UK.
Shark hysteria is all part of the silly season for certain sections of the media. Every year, some newspapers talk of “shark-infested waters” and warn holidaymakers that sharks are circling just off the beaches they and their children are to visit. Sheesh, with all these sharks ready to kill us, you have to wonder how a single human being is still alive come autumn time.
But should we be scared of sharks – or should they be scared of us? Humans kill around 100 million sharks every year, but sharks kill very few of us – just 11 people worldwide in 2021. So which is the more deadly species here?
Of the 480 different species of shark, just three ever carry out unprovoked attacks on humans, and then only very rarely. You are more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on you, from slipping in a shower or from falling out of bed than you are to be killed by a shark – a one in 3,748,067 chance. They are the planet’s most maligned creatures.
Jaws is a gripping piece of cinema with an iconic soundtrack, but it has demonised these beautiful fish and caused decades of unnecessary fear. George Burgess, director of the Florida Programme for Shark Research, says that “thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws” and the number of large sharks fell by 50 per cent along the eastern seaboard of North America in the years after the release of the movie. So there has been a huge price to pay for Jaws, which played on our fear of and fascination with a predatory “other”.
Our language is revealing. We talk of “shark-infested waters” as if the seas belong to us, rather than the sharks. Before the 16th century, they were known as “sea dogs”, but then they were renamed “sharks”, from a Dutch word meaning “predator”. Their name has since been used negatively: think of “loan sharks” and other unscrupulous, greedy types.
In truth, we are the greedy predators. We kill sharks for their teeth, jaws, meat and fins. Fishermen slice off the sharks’ fins to make into soup and then toss the maimed fishes back into the ocean, where they suffer a slow and painful death. Even chef Gordon Ramsay, hardly a sentimental friend of the animals, has said that shark finning is “the worst act of animal cruelty” he has ever seen.
Sharks are also held hostage at SeaWorld and other marine parks and aquariums, relegated to entertainment for spectators. Although they are essential for the health and wellbeing of oceanic ecosystems, several species of sharks are expected to become extinct over the next two decades.
The war on sharks is just one front in our war on fish. Apologists for fishing claim fish don’t feel pain, but this has been disproved. Professor Donald Broom, a scientific adviser to the government, says: “The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.” A European Union scientific panel has also found that fish do experience pain and fear.
So put yourself in the place of the fish that is caught in a trawling net. You are slowly crushed to death under the weight of other fish, your eyes ballooning out in your final, agonising hours. Or maybe you survive that and are then either left to slowly suffocate or disembowelled with a gutting knife while you’re still conscious.
Imagine yourself as a fish on a factory farm, where you are cut across the gills and left to bleed to death, electrocuted in a water bath or smashed over the head with a blunt instrument.
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We kill these creatures on an unimaginable scale. The fishing industry measures the slaughter in tonnes rather than individual lives. The global wild fish catch stands at about 90 million tonnes, with a further 42 million tonnes coming from fish farms. Trillions of lives.
In recent years, lots of people have boasted about ditching plastic straws to save marine life. Well, abandoned fishing gear makes up at least 10 per cent of ocean plastic and has been described as an “immortal menace” by the WWF, while plastic straws make up just 0.025 per cent of it. According to the 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, 46 per cent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing ropes. So how about we stop eating fish – to save the fish?
And while we’re about it, let’s stop demonising sharks. It’s easy not to care when another species is being vilified and killed. We are not animals trembling as we await our turn in abattoirs, or beagles bred in captivity to be experimented upon, or sharks dying painfully after our fins are cut off. But be careful, because one day someone might decide your life doesn’t matter, either, and then you really will have something to worry about.