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If I were an unappreciated endangered shark

The gap between how humans treat dolphins and how humans treat sharks has gotten wider. Many ancient cultures worshiped sharks as gods. Now it’s hard to get people to agree to take basic steps to ensure that species of sharks don’t go extinct, while they’ll try to move heaven and Earth to save 16 dolphins. It’s hard to get people to care about the brutal, unsustainable, and wasteful practice of shark finning that’s wiping out whole species of sharks, but a movie about a single dolphin that loses a fin is considered a must-see family classic.

WhySharksMatter is not a shark, but can't pass up the opportunity to pose as one for photos

The success of “Dolphin Tale” got me thinking. Dolphins and sharks are both top predators, so dolphins are no more ecologically important than their elasmobranch counterparts. Dolphins have it much easier than sharks. The world isn’t fair to sharks, just because they were born with behaviors that makes it harder for them to benefit from a growing global concern about biodiversity. This is a fact, decades after the birth of the environmental movement.

I am not a shark. I’m not a dolphin either. I’m a human, and I was born into a completely different set of circumstances than either group of marine predators. Life wasn’t as hard for me as it is for a shark. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on sharks. I still believe that it’s possible for a group of sometimes-unpopular animals to get the legal protections they need to avoid extinction. Still, even decades after the birth of the environmental movement.

It takes a dedicated group of conservation activists. It takes government officials that understand and care about science and the environment. And while it shouldn’t have to take a complete change the life history patterns and behavior of sharks for them to get protection,  it sure would make things easier.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d lay off the whole biting people thing. Sure, it doesn’t happen often- the average American has a 1 in 6 chance of dying from heart disease and a 1 in 3 million chance of being killed by a shark. Sure, most shark bites are cases of mistake identity, most are avoidable with small changes in human behavior, and few result in serious injury. Still, our news media seems to focus a lot more on shark bites than on much more lethal things like smoking, obesity, or car accidents. People are starting to realize that because of the ecosystem services they provide, humans are better off with sharks than we are without them, but it would be a little easier to convince people of this if no human was injured because of a shark ever.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d work with scientists to make it more clear that sharks provide important ecosystem services. Speaking as a scientist, I can tell you that it’s very hard to study sharks. Evidence is starting to pile up which demonstrates the ecological importance of these top predators in numerous ecosystems, but more evidence would help make the case to the public and to policy makers that it is important to protect sharks.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d work with scientists and managers to help them monitor my species’ population. Fisheries scientist Boris Worm once quipped that counting fish is like counting trees, except that they move and you can’t see them because they’re underwater.  While most shark biologists agree that the populations of most shark species are declining, the exact extent of these declines is a source of much debate. It would be helpful if we knew exactly how many sharks there were and exactly how many were killed by fishermen.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d smile more. Humans tend to associate dolphins with smiling and sharks with being menacing. There’s only so much you can do with the face you’re given, but some people would be more likely to want to protect sharks if they smiled more. Perhaps they should consider evolving a smile, even though the long generation time of sharks (some don’t reach reproductive maturity until they’re 15 years old or older) would make it all but impossible for this to happen in time to make a difference. Also, that’s not how evolution works. Not at all.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d fire our Hollywood agent and get a better one. Dolphins are always the good guys in movies and sharks are always the bad guys! Charlie Sheen was fired from the #1 comedy on television for engaging in behaviors much less disturbing than killing a mother’s baby so that she’d be more willing to mate (something that male dolphins have been known to do), and dolphins still get the good guy roles. Clearly, sharks need a better agent, and probably some better government lobbyists as well.

If I was an unappreciated endangered shark, I’d help the ecotourism business to grow. More and more research is showing that a live shark on a reef can be worth much more to the ecotourism business than a dead shark in a market can be worth to fishermen. Many countries depend on SCUBA diving tourism for a large part of their income. If more of these countries realize that sharks can be a valuable draw to SCUBA divers, more of them will be come “shark sanctuaries”, which will help to further raise awareness in addition to saving those sharks.

The conservation movement can help sharks. It doesn’t require that they want to be helped, because they’re fish, and fish can’t really “want” anything in the traditional sense of the word. The opportunity to get the legal protections they need to avoid extinction is still there, and it would certainly help their chances if sharks would abandon their identity completely and just try to copy a group that has already succeeded.


Note: If you are confused by this post, read this article by Gene Marks and this reply by Danielle Lee.