This summer of the shark, it’s all about saving them

August 5, 2011

Ten years ago, it seemed as if the nation was living a real-life version of “Jaws,” in which every beach harbored a potential threat. It started on July 6, when 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast had his arm bitten off by a bull shark off Pensacola, Fla. The incident was both horrifying and dramatic: Arbogast’s uncle pulled the shark to shore, allowing emergency medical personnel to get the boy’s arm out of the animal’s throat so it could later be reattached. Less than a month later, 36-year-old Krishna Thompson, a New Yorker, lost a leg to a shark in the Bahamas.

Labor Day weekend was particularly lethal. Ten-year-old David Peltier died on Sept. 2 when a shark claimed him off Virginia Beach. The next day, 28-year-old Sergei Zaloukaev was killed by a shark while swimming off Cape Hatteras, N.C.; his 23-year-old girlfriend, Natalia Slobodskaya, lost a foot in the same incident. As the human toll rose, the news media quickly dubbed 2001 the “Summer of the Shark.”

Television correspondents rushed to the scenes of the attacks, where they chronicled the most minute developments, announcing even the non-news that emergency responders doing routine sweeps of the ocean had failed to find any signs of sharks.

Pundits weighed in. As some emphasized that sharks pose a minimal threat to humans, Slate’s Will Saletan questioned their analogies.

“Let’s get a few things straight. Gentle creatures don’t devour human limbs. The bogeyman doesn’t bleed children to death,” Saletan wrote on Sept. 7, 2001.

Less than a week later, we forgot all about sharks. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 took the lives of 2,753 people, a tragedy that dwarfed the impact of shark accidents not just that year, but in the half-century that preceded it. There were 76 unprovoked shark attacks globally in 2001, down from 85 the year before. Fatalities, meanwhile, dropped from 12 to five between 2000 and 2001.

Sharks still terrify people. Just consider the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” which wrapped up Friday: It is cable’s longest-running programming event and attracted 30.8 million viewers last year. And sharks remain the ocean’s top predators, with extraordinary senses that allow them to target weaker species. On occasion, they mistake humans for the animals they want to eat, with disastrous consequences.

But the era of hysteria could, mercifully, have finally sputtered out. In fact, we’ve entered a new kind of Year of the Shark.

The science is hard to ignore: Roughly a third of all shark species face some threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The growing demand for shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, kills between 26 and 73 million sharks a year. Vessels fishing for tuna, swordfish and other species accidentally catch millions more annually. Recreational anglers help deplete shark populations as well, taking 200,000 annually off U.S. coasts, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Summer of the Shark in ’01 didn’t send scientists scurrying to figure out why these animals strike people. But the past decade has witnessed a number of research breakthroughs about how sharks travel, mate and feed — research in the service of protecting them more than protecting us.

“The major driver of shark research during the past 10 years is growing evidence that many shark populations are in trouble,” said Ellen K. Pikitch, who has studied sharks for years and serves as executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University.

People fishing in developing countries have seen depleted shark populations as well. Scott Henderson, who heads Conservation International’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program and has worked in Latin America for two decades, said fishermen there are well aware of what’s happening. “They know sharks are being caught in lower numbers, they know they have to go further out and spend more effort catching them. They know what that means.”

And now, political leaders are beginning to act. In 2009, Palau became the first country to ban shark fishing in its waters. Maldives followed in 2010, and this summer, Honduras and the Bahamasdid the same. Late last month, a group of governments in Micronesia — including Palau — agreed to create the world’s largest shark sanctuary in the western Pacific Ocean, spanning more than 2 million square miles. That’s equivalent to two-thirds of the land mass of the continental United States.

Closer to home, several states have moved to ban shark’s fin imports to help cut the demand for shark fishing worldwide. Hawaii was the first to do so, and now Washington and Oregon have enacted similar laws. A shark fin ban passed the California state Assembly in May and could come up for a vote in the state Senate this month. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering banning the catch of tiger sharks and three species of hammerhead sharks, and it will vote on the issue next month. Neil Hammerschlag, who directs the marine conservation program at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, noted that these restrictions can make a significant difference. He said recent studies show that when it comes to recreational shark fishing, killing just a few large sharks in a local area can drastically reduce population levels.

Matt Rand, who directs the Global Shark Conservation program at the Pew Environment Group, said that conservation activity overseas as well as in the United States indicates that for sharks, “their time has come.” Pikitch said concern for sharks has “reached a tipping point,” which means, “in essence, 2011 is a very different Year of the Shark.”

Interestingly, this new tolerance comes even as human-shark interactions may be on the rise. Last month a great white leapt onto a research vessel in South Africa, and reported shark strikes in U.S. waters are slightly up this summer, with seven each in May and June, and three in July.

Are we ready to embrace sharks? Not yet. The Discovery Channel is still dangling the promise of “a new brand of rogue,” even as it debunks the myth that sharks intentionally target humans.

But people can now put these threats into perspective. Sharks have killed an average of four to five people annually worldwide over the past decade. But this summer’s heat wave has already killed more than 30 people across the United States. Now that’s scary.

outlook@washpost.com

Juliet Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”

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