SHARKS: More Threatened Than Threatening

4th February 2013

Written by Jon Friedman

UCT Summer School 2013
Speaker: Ryan Johnson. CEO Oceans Research.

The first of three lectures at this year’s UCT Summer School series dealing with the topic of Living With Great White Sharks in Cape Town, was delivered by a man no stranger to controversy and similarly no stranger to people’s perceptions of the Great White Shark as anything but a wanton “killer” and a terror of the deep with a taste for human flesh. As the CEO of Mossel Bay-based shark and marine research centre Ocearch (or Oceans Research, by its full name) New Zealand-born Ryan Johnson is the man people come to when looking for answers to the question of why sharks bite people. Ryan was in the news most recently (April last year) when bodyboarder David Lilienfeld was killed by a Great White Shark at Kogel Bay. Johnson was leading an Ocearch tagging expedition in the area at the time and the media was quick to heap blame on the group’s activities in the water as being responsible for the young surfer’s untimely demise. “It’s the first time anyone’s called me a murderer,” told Johnson. While exonerated of any wrongdoing, this was just one example of how the media are prone to a feeding frenzy around the issue of shark attacks, wherever they happen to occur.

With this sentiment as the backdrop for his talk, Johnson went on to illustrate using graphs just how misaligned sharks are within in the realm of creatures that can potentially end human lives. For every one person that dies from a shark bite, 166 666 will die from the bite of a mosquito (via malaria), or 8333 from being bitten by a poisonous snake. At the same time, the amount of media attention given to people dying from malaria, pales in comparison to the amount of coverage given just one shark bite. In the case of David Lilienfeld, the story remained front page news across the country in every newspaper for six days after the attack. He cited the age-old newspaper mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads” as being somewhat responsible for this.

Are we humans genetically fearful of creatures that can kill us? And do we automatically want to kill that which scares us? Johnson was also able to reveal that new research has found that the very word “shark” strikes more fear into the average human being than any other word in any other language, trumping the words “terrorism,” “genocide”, “car-crash” and “mother-in-law” in the heebie-jeebies inducing stakes. Selachophobia means ‘fear of sharks’.

Having brought into stark relief just how misunderstood the great White Shark is, Johnson went on to describe how very important it is that humans find a way to turn their thinking around on sharks in general. Especially since our local population of Great White Sharks is showing no signs of increase and also showing a remarkable decrease in the mean size of individuals when they are caught. (Despite the shark enjoying fully protected status in our waters since 1991).

Tasked with coming up with an accurate estimate of the number of Great White Sharks believed to live along our coastlines, Johnson and his team of researchers claim that the total population size is less than 2000 animals. Combine this statistic with the known reproductive cycle of female sharks and you have a grim future outlook for these apex predators of the sea. As a keystone species, the removal of the Great White Shark will have catastrophic effects on the balance of the entire marine ecosystem. He likened the scenario in the sea to that of the land where the eradication of large predators (deemed to be “pests”), such as wolves and bears hasn’t solved any problems and simply given rise to new conflict which as been, in most cases, even harder to manage than the one before it. It’s a slippery slope and hopefully one which we can avoid becoming victims to before it is too late and we find ourselves catapulted over the edge of no return.

A video of the talk can be viewed on Facebook here

Images courtesy of UCT Summer School