Health News Digest

August 15, 2005

Swimming With Sharks: Hardly Eco-Tourism Shark!

By  Michael D. Shaw

Ever since the theatrical release of “Jaws” (1975), the famous movie about a killer shark, there have been powerful misconceptions about all sharks, but especially the Great White—Carcharodon carcharias. Do you recall this breathless hype from the “Jaws” trailer?

“There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything. It is as though God created the devil and gave him jaws.”

Driven by a press corps eager for headlines and sensationalism, there has arisen a wildly false sense of crisis governing the relationship between man and the natural habitat of sharks. In fact, recent reports about a wave of shark attacks against swimmers, divers, and snorkelers neglect the principal culprit of this thoroughly man-made phenomenon: the deliberate, sustained, and increasingly dangerous feeding of sharks in waters frequented by tourists—”eco-tourists” or otherwise.

Rather than acknowledge this problem, which continues to alter the behavior of sharks in places like Florida, Hawaii, Australia, and the Caribbean, the media continue to depict these attacks as the real life manifestation of Hollywood’s mythical deep sea villain—a man-eating shark that invades the peaceful world of seaside resorts.

In truth, the widespread practice of chumming (or baiting) attracts the very sharks the public fears the most. Designed to increase the thrill factor for tourists, as if the ocean were nothing more than a theme park with cheaper admission than Sea World or Six Flags, this exercise in marine irrationality places people and sharks in a highly risky situation.

In a recent case, a shark attack against a small boy on a Florida beach renewed concerns about allowing sport divers to feed bull sharks and other predators off the shoreline of several popular beaches. According to Dr. William Alevizon, a marine biologist and expert on fish life of Florida and the Caribbean, “It’s bad enough that Florida’s coasts are home to large numbers of dangerous sharks, but to deliberately go out and teach these animals to associate humans with food, and then turn them loose on an unsuspecting public is just plain stupid.”

At the risk of restating the obvious, sharks are not pets! Just like past reports about alligators that invade lakes near retirement villages because of people who feed these creatures, the rise in shark attacks has everything to do with the intentional chumming of waters. Unintended or not, these are the grim consequences of irresponsible acts.

Dr. Alevizon states, “This type of food conditioning has led to numerous documented injuries from marine predators like barracudas, morays, and sharks that have bitten hands, arms, and even faces of divers who were not participating in a feeding dive but nonetheless unknowingly made the wrong move at the wrong time, in the fish’s mind signaling that dinner was served.” A “recipe” for disaster, indeed.

Of course, there HAVE been truly unprovoked shark attacks, and some of the most bizarre and frightening encounters occurred in New Jersey—in fresh water!

Within a 10-day period in the Garden State, during July, 1916, five men were attacked by sharks, netting four fatalities. This series of incidents was very likely the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, on which the film was based. The tragedies created the notion of a so-called “New Jersey Man-Eater,” that trolled inland waterways.

However, after scientific study, it seems highly unlikely that a single shark perpetrated all the attacks. A Bull, Tiger, or Great White Shark could have been involved. The most interesting finding regarding this case is that while large sharks, including species known to be dangerous, regularly occur along the New Jersey shore and in some of its tidal creeks, attacks against humans are extremely rare.

We note that there are 50-100 reported shark attacks against humans worldwide, each year, with a disproportionate number coming from the United States. No doubt, this is because of over-hyped media coverage. Fatalities average around eight per year. Given these numbers, you have a far greater chance of being killed by lightning or bee stings.

Still, why tempt fate, and why be an environmental boor?

Get your shark action at an aquarium, on TV, or in the movies. And let the sharks find their own food. After all, they’ve done a pretty good job of that for hundreds of millions of years.