Accustomed to its share of card sharks, loan sharks and other two-legged representatives of the species, Baltimore was host for the first time this week to more than 100 specialists in the underwater kind -- "elasmobranchs," as real sharks are also called.
Scientists, researchers and curators ranging from bearded professors to field workers in blue jeans with clasp knives on their belts gathered at the National Aquarium to exchange notes and listen to lectures about sharks' eating habits, diseases, sexuality, migrations and something called shark laproscopy and visually guided biopsy.
But for the average beach-goer who still lives with the memory of the movie "Jaws," the good news from the three-day conference is that sharks infrequently attack human beings.
"Unprovoked shark attacks are rare," Virginia Institute of Marine Science researcher John A. Musick told the assembled ichthyologists.
"There are only about 25 shark attacks a year worldwide," said National Marine Fisheries scientist John G. Casey in an interview, "and only about 25 in the last 100 years along the Atlantic coast from Cape Hatteras to Maine."
What's more, Casey said, the largest shark ever reported -- a great white sighted off the coast of Cuba in the 1940s -- was only about 21 feet long, not the mythic monster of "Jaws."
Sharks normally are not interested in humans as food, he said, but even if they were, man and shark are normally unlikely to bump into each other. Sharks rarely enter the surf zone of beaches. "That's where most of the people are," Casey said, "but not where most of the sharks are."
Billed as the first international conference on the "captive biology" of sharks, the gathering here is sponsored by the National Aquarium and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Designed to bring field scientists and aquarium curators together to examine improved ways of catching, transporting and maintaining sharks for public view and scientific study, the conference has drawn shark fanciers from throughout the United States as well as France, England, South Africa and Okinawa. It continues through Wednesday.
The National Aquarium, on the waterfront of Baltimore's inner harbor, houses more than two dozen sharks, including seven multi-ton sand tiger sharks caught off the coast of Delaware and smaller predators that frequent the Chesapeake Bay.
During feeding time today, the sharks munched on squid, mackerel and herring offered on a very long pole held by an attendant.
Casey said man has been fascinated by sharks "ever since there have been seafaring people." In recent years, he said, the study of sharks has shifted from a "man-against-the-animal approach" to objective research into sharks' habits and their effects on the environment.
Sharks have little commercial use, Casey said, except for their fins, which sell for up to $5 a pound and are used to make shark fin soup. At the same time, he said, recreational shark fishing has increased in popularity in recent years and sportsmen catch more than 20 million pounds of shark annually on the Atlantic coast alone.
Some may view the shark as a sinister creature with jagged teeth and underslung lower jaw, but Musick waxed eloquent on the big-eyed thresher shark, a mid-sized fish with large winglike fins and a raised tail. "It is one of the most exciting sharks I've ever seen. It reminds [one] of a jet airplane."