This loathing means that people kill sharks not only to use or sell their body parts, but for a number of other reasons too: simply out of dislike; because of the perceived threat they pose to humans and fishing gear; in a misguided attempt to protect fishery resources; or for recreation. It also means people are quick to jump to lethal means for mitigating human–shark interactions, despite their ineffectiveness, and even though there are tried-and-tested, non-lethal ways to manage such conflict.
With knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding comes respect. The Save Our Seas Foundation funds numerous shark education and outreach programmes. By educating people, particularly children, and raising awareness about sharks, their diversity, biology, anatomy and behaviour, we can instil a healthy understanding and respect for them and their relatives.
Persecution is defined as being persistently hostile towards someone, or something, on the basis of their identity. When we talk about persecution in relation to sharks, we mean the deliberate and targeted killing or harassment of sharks because of their natural behaviour – or how humans perceive sharks and their behaviour. Sharks are quite often framed as ‘wolves of the sea’ – skilled hunters with a fearsome reputation. As we have encroached further into their ocean habitat for recreational and commercial purposes, human interactions with sharks have been more frequently documented. Although the chances of these interactions being negative – a shark biting a human, for example – are statistically quite rare, the reputation sharks have for being bloodthirsty killers means that humans tend to respond to this minor threat by hunting or culling them.
There are a couple of reasons behind our fears. The first is simply human nature – we’re wired to automatically see large predators with sharp teeth as a threat! This harks way back to our ancestors and speaks more to our primal survival instincts than a real, lived experience. In fact, many of us have never even encountered a shark – but often, fear of the unknown is much stronger than the fear of something we’ve already met.
Sharks also represent a world in which we are not ‘top dog’. On land, man is at the top of the food chain, but in the open ocean we’re pretty vulnerable. Sharks are definitely in their element here. Therefore, when swimming in the ocean, we can feel somewhat out of control – and that sharks have the upper hand.
Lastly, our fear of sharks has been perpetuated by how they have been portrayed in popular culture and the media. In the late 20th century, the narrative of sharks shifted from mysterious monsters of the deep to something more sinister and dangerous. The 1975 film Jaws catapulted the idea of sharks as merciless killers with a penchant for human flesh into the mainstream. This, coupled with early scientific research that suggested shark ‘attacks’ on humans were undertaken by ‘rogue’ sharks with specific human-hunting behaviour, led to the belief that sharks were conscious antagonists of humans and as such should be feared and hunted down. The mass media typically sensationalises stories of sharks biting humans, using suggestive language and placing undue emphasis on these incidents. Such biased coverage influences how people perceive sharks and could reduce essential support for shark conservation.
There have been incidents where sharks have harmed or killed humans, but there is widespread debate about whether the word ‘attack’ is the right one to use. Experts in shark behaviour say that it is more accurate to say ‘shark bite’, as often that is what happens as opposed to an actual attack. Humans may die due to their injuries, but accounts of sharks actually eating a human being are incredibly rare. More commonly, the shark bites, then leaves. Bull sharks, tiger sharks and great white sharks are among the species that have been recorded doing this.
The reasons why sharks bite are not certain, but there are a few theories. One is the energy theory. When understanding animal behaviour, the general rule of thumb is animals will opt for whichever behaviour uses the least energy – an attack, which takes quite a lot of energy, is often the last resort. In fact, animals commonly have a series of ‘signals’ that precede an attack – effectively telling you to ‘back off’. However, if you’re swimming or surfing on the surface, you’re less likely to see those warning signals from a threatened shark beneath you. Another popular theory is that sharks give a ‘test bite’, which is their way of asking ‘what ARE you?’ Unfortunately, humans are not built to withstand that sort of investigation! Finally, some scientists believe injuries inflicted by sharks are a case of mistaken identity. For example, a surfer paddling on a board looks very similar to a seal from underneath – the prey of some of the larger shark species.
This being said, sharks are generally shy animals and the chance of being bitten by one is astoundingly rare. In fact, on many occasions sharks have been observed in the vicinity of swimmers and surfers without any encounters actually happening. Equally, although there are more than 500 species of sharks and rays, only a dozen are considered a potential danger to humans. Statistically speaking, you have a 1 in 3,748,067 chance of dying by shark attack – you’re more likely to meet your fate in a car accident (1 in 84) or by heart disease (1 in 5) or sunstroke (1 in 13,729). In fact, jellyfish are responsible for 15–30 times more deaths per year than sharks!
Culling is the reduction of a wild animal population by typically lethal methods. Sharks may be culled in a number of ways, including targeted hunting and the use of ‘drumlines’ (a floating drum with lines attached, one of which has a baited shark hook). Culling is usually sanctioned in areas with relatively high incidents of negative human–shark interaction. For example, in 2013 the Western Australian government implemented a cull of tiger, bull and white sharks in response to reports of shark bites, specifying that individuals larger than three metres (10 feet) be removed. Culling programmes may prevent shark bites, but they also negatively impact wild shark populations.
Non-lethal methods can also be used, including special nets that act as a barrier between sharks and swimmers. However, the effectiveness of these nets has been disputed in the past.
The prevention of shark persecution requires two things. The first is a mass cultural shift, away from the demonisation of sharks in the media and towards more accurate and informed reporting. This means better communication of shark science and the available data on human–shark interactions. Doing so is much easier now with social media – there are many accounts, including ours, that are trying to change the narrative on these amazing creatures. Education programmes that operate in areas where large, predatory shark species are common are also vital in helping to spread awareness about shark behaviour and conservation. The SOSF Shark Education Centre, located in Cape Town, aims to nurture a connection to these species, encourage responsible and sustainable activities and help foster a healthy respect for sharks.
The second thing required is the development of hazard management, beach patrol and early detection methods. As more people use our coastlines for recreation, the possibility of a shark bite – while rare – is there. Programmes like the Shark Spotters initiative have dedicated teams who watch out on shore for sharks and coordinate with other teams at strategic locations. They have an early warning system in place – a red flag, for instance, means sharks are about, whereas a white one signals that you should leave the water immediately. These programmes contribute to human safety and well-being without the negative consequences of lethal control!
Oxford Lexico, 2021. Definition: persecution
Guerra, A.S., 2019. Wolves of the Sea: Managing human–wildlife conflict in an increasingly tense ocean. Marine Policy.
Florida Museum, 2021. Shark attacks: trends and fatalities
National Geographic, 2021. Animals: Sharks attack fear science psychology..
Neff, C. and Hueter, R., 2013. Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark ‘attack’: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions., Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
Gibbs, L., et al., 2020. Effects and effectiveness of lethal shark hazard management: the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program, NSW, Australia., People and Nature.
Shiffman, D.S., et al., 2020. Inaccurate and biased global media coverage underlies public misunderstanding of shark conservation threats and solutions. Iscience.