Are you afraid of sharks? If you are, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a large club to be part of, and on its face, it makes sense. Sharks, as many people think of them, are hungry, blood-thirsty creatures, hellbent on rending flesh from bone. Those, black, soulless eyes peering from the massive head of those ravenous monsters of the deep, dragging you down into the depths while gouts of your blood turn the sea red around you as you drown, only to be consumed piece by piece in your watery grave. See? Fucking scary.
Jaws really did a number on the way we think of sharks. And yes, they are creatures that have evolved over 450 million years to be perfect killing machines. They’re apex predators that hunt the ocean without fear of anything other than maybe the errant killer whale with a taste for shark liver. And we, with our tiny flailing legs and arms, dull teeth, and weak nails, are no match for one. The news doesn’t help, either — if it bleeds it leads, and shark attacks are bloody — and every shark attack is relentlessly reported on by outlets chasing the almighty click. Thankfully, we have brains large enough to create things to protect ourselves and opposable thumbs, otherwise we’d be on the menu instead of the ones writing it. But should we really be afraid of sharks? You already know the answer: absolutely not.
That hard and fast truth, though, is difficult to remember when you paddle out somewhere at dusk and you think you see a slinking shadow beneath you. Panic rears its head. Thoughts race, eyes bulge, heart beats out of chest. Because, you know… what if? Black, soulless eyes! Flesh being torn from bone! Gouts of blood! That fear, as unfounded as it may be, can be hard to escape. It doesn’t matter that you’re more likely to be crushed by a cow in a field, a falling vending machine, a dog attack, or a lightning strike. Fear’s a strange thing. It is, however, super dumb. Sharks are incredibly important to a healthy ocean, we’re slaughtering the shit out of them, and it doesn’t really seem to be a huge deal because… well, because the idea of dying by shark attack is downright terrifying.
Shark fins and shark meat are still in high demand, despite the fact that nearly everyone knows they shouldn’t be eating shark fin soup. Sharks are overfished by commercial vessels, but they’re also often caught in nets. It’s estimated that about 50 million sharks a year are caught unintentionally by commercial fishing operations, and you can bet that those operations aren’t going out of their way to return those sharks to the ocean.
By most estimates, humans kill somewhere around 100 million sharks a year. That’s about 11,000 an hour. Let that sink in for a second. In the time it took you to make breakfast, eat, and wash the dishes this morning, 11,000 sharks perished. Eleven thousand more will perish in the next hour after that, and the next one and the next one and the next one. Every single hour of every day for an entire year. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), in 2020 there were 129 shark attacks. Fifty-seven of those were unprovoked, and there were 13 fatalities. In the world. And although that number is up from the average, the average number is four fatal attacks globally each year.
“Annual fluctuations in shark-human interactions are common,” ISAF wrote in its yearly worldwide shark attack summary.”Despite 2020’s spike in fatalities, long-term trends show a decreasing number of annual fatalities. Year-to-year variability in oceanographic, socioeconomic, and meteorological conditions significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water.”
So why are sharks so important? Well, they keep the other populations in check. They keep those populations healthy by preying on the sick and the weak, meaning the healthiest survive. They protect oceanic habitats like seagrass and coral reefs by eating certain species that graze on them. Without sharks, those habitats would be overgrazed, which leads to far more deaths of the creatures that rely on them for survival.
Where did our fear of sharks come from? As I mentioned before, Jaws, the film released in 1975, certainly didn’t help matters, but that film was made because we’re inherently scared of them. “Fear is something that we’ve inherited from our early ancestors,” marine biologist Blake Chapman, a shark expert at the University of Queensland in Australia, told National Geographic. “[Sharks] are an animal. Biological things like animals are something that we’re very prone to fear.”
To be sure, our ancestors did have a lot to be afraid of. Fear, it’s thought, is an adaptation to keep us alive. You’re scared of falling off a cliff? You avoid the cliff. Scared of a bear mauling you? You stay away from that bear. And thus, you stay alive and have babies and the human race goes on and on. Procreation of the species and all that. Since we’re so good at doing that (and because our giant brains have devised other genius ways to keep us alive), our numbers are skyrocketing far beyond what the planet and all the other species can effectively deal with. In short, we’re crowding everyone out, and since sharks aren’t exactly cute, they’re getting the hardest shoves.
So if you’re in that scared-of-sharks club, I get it. Your fear is okay. But it helps to remember that it’s not sharks that are scary — it’s your idea of what a shark could do. Remember, though, that your chances of actually being attacked by a shark, even if you see one in the lineup, are infinitesimally small and that we, with our big brains and opposable thumbs, are the scariest ones. We need sharks to keep our oceans healthy, after all, and our irrational fear of sharks won’t lead anywhere good.
Learn more about sharks in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety.