Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sharks: Prey or Predator?

Remember the movie "Jaws"?

I learnt quite a bit about sharks from that movie. Hang on... let me rephrase that: I learnt quite a bit about what the movie maker wanted me to know about sharks from that movie.

Before the movie, sharks were nothing more than some pictures in books. These reading materials either said nothing very much about the fish or portrayed negative images. There was never a moment I held good impression of this animal.

When the movie came along, the world joined me in condemning the shark. I could recognise hatred, disgust and fear in my feelings towards the fish and I had no doubt that all the sharks were human enemy.

During the last weekend, 3 shark attacks took place within 24 hours at different parts of the Australian coasts. This is not the first incident and it will not be the last too. Each time something like that happens, mankind will renew their staunch belief that sharks are bad.

Are they really so bad?

Let's talk about the shark attack incidents last weekend. Three attacks within 24 hours sounds disastrous if we choose to take a silo view. However, if we look at it in perspective, shark attacks have caused 60 fatalities over the last 50 years in Australia. At an average of 1.2 deaths per year, it does not sound as scary. In fact, more people die from bee sting in Australia than shark attacks.

Ironically, compared to other less feared causes, sharks are not responsible for as many deaths. For example, several hundred people die annually from lightning strikes. If that is the case, why is it that not many people around me suffer from Astraphobia (the fear of lightning)?

There are 360 species of sharks and only a handful are known to be dangerous to human, notably the great white, tiger and bull sharks. Just because of these few rascals, the entire shark community is being labeled as man-eating monsters by ignorant and confused human, like me.
Sharks are very resilient animal. There is evidence that shark existed since more than 400 mil years ago. That is long before many things we know around us have started to appear on planet Earth. Just for information, homo sapiens, i.e., you and I, are believed to have evolved only 400,000 years ago.

It appears to me that sharks are real survivors to have been around for so long.

Although I find it hard to believe but experts think that generally sharks are not in the habit of attacking human. They believe that attacks occur when the fish confuses swimmers, surfers and divers with its usual prey.

Despite my own rationalization about sharks, I remain fearful of this fish. However, when I realize how the relatively low number of shark attacks on humans is dwarfed by the number of sharks fished by humans, my fear turns into shame.

Every year, about 40 millions sharks are killed by people in commercial fishing. Sharks are killed for various purposes but mostly for shark's fin soup. The dish is considered a status symbol in Asian countries and there are even claims that it helps to prevent cancer.

There has been little or no proof that eating shark cartilage has any effect against cancer. However, it does not seem that shark fishing is slowing down. Today, shark's fin trade is a major problem and has gained international controversy.

Compared to other types of fish, sharks produce much fewer offspring. Thanks to the second dish in typical Chinese 10-course banquets, many shark species are now considered to be threatened.

Internationally, environmental groups are giving pressures to ban shark fishing and finning. This has resulted in the change of law in some countries.

In Singapore, very little is done or felt in the fight against shark fishing. So far, I have only attended one wedding dinner that has deliberately excluded shark's fin soup in support of the cause.

In 2007, the consumption of shark's fin in Singapore doubled from 2006. We consumed 182 tonnes in 2006 and it went up to 470 tonnes in 2007! The sharks must be cursing at the economic boom.

Near by, at the Hong Kong Disneyland, the dish was removed from its wedding banquet menu after international pressure. To me, the move is significant in view of the potential high demand for the delicacy from China.

I confess that I hold a bias view against sharks but I do not mind having them on my dinner table. I know that I should be feeling guilty but I do not intend to fake it. There are tons of people out there who are like me. I do not know when it will happen but I reckon it will take a long time before there can be some truce between sharks and human.

For me, the closest I have ever come to liking sharks was when I watched the movie Shark Tale. Otherwise, my relationship with the sharks have all along been on the down side.

Should you decide to start caring for the sharks now, it is never too late. The creator of Jaws movie, Peter, Benchley, tried to dispel the myth that sharks are man-eating monsters in the years before his death.

So, what's your next move?

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