Of all the fish in the sea, it is the entire Chondrichthions class which seem to suffer the worst reputation. As the animals best adapted to the marine environment, Chondrichthions have a cartilaginous skeletal structure which makes them extremely quick in the water. The class is split in two; Holocephali are the Chimaeras and the Elasmobranchii are the rays and sharks, with the latter being the most famous of all.
In 1975, director Steven Spielberg told a lesser known story by Paul Benchley about a shark which plagues Amity island in a series of gruesome attacks. Unlike the book, the film was an enormous success commercially and is the 7th highest grossing film of all time in USA and Canada. If you hadn’t already guessed, the film is called Jaws. The story captured our imaginations and pumped us full of fear towards a group of animals that have far more to fear from us than the other way around.
Soon after the release of Jaws a wide spread fear of the marine environment has plagued our society. After all, no sooner are we in the water than those sharks are swimming towards us desperate to eat us! It is so embedded in our psyche that these days I still notice our children emulate our own fear of the water. They know the famous theme tune, da dun da dun da dun, and yet have not even seen the film. They even know that the shark that is coming for them is the great white. Consequently, this has had devastating consequences on the order through competition or commercial fishing. What good are they, and the only good shark is a dead shark are persisting present-day attitudes amongst some people.
So, let us put some of this fear into context. In 2016, the total global unprovoked shark attacks totalled 84 incidents, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). Of all these worldwide attacks, four were fatal and if that number seems terribly high to you then consider the following. Globally, falling coconuts kill around 120 people per year yet we hardly hear clamours to cut down coconut trees. By contrast, Dalhousie University in Halifax Canada, has estimated that commercial fishing kills 100 million sharks per year. This figure, if accurate, would mean that globally, for every human killed by a shark, we retaliate with the deaths of 25 million sharks. This over reaction on our part is genocidal in almost every sense.
If the figures don’t convince you then consider the following. Whilst working at the London Aquarium, I was part of the dive team and my main responsibility was treatments and maintenance in the shark tank. Treatments required me to load food with specific vitamins and nutrients and target feed the appropriate shark. This was done by hand albeit covered in chainmail. Over the years, I quickly learned that these awesome predators would always gently take the fish out of my hand in an almost dog like fashion, a far cry from the mindless human eating maniacs portrayed in Jaws.
Ah but those sharks are used to divers and have been tamed over the years, I hear you say. Consider then, that at Sealife, orcas in captivity have to-date killed four of their trainers and injured dozens more. To all intents are purposes, you cannot tame a wild instinct and yet marine mammals which are generally perceived as more intelligent, have the worse track record than sharks in the aquarium environment.
So, within the last few months, the Department of the Environment has taken the bold step of offering sharks complete protection in BGTW, all but two species. From a conservational perspective this makes Gibraltar a global leader with this initiative alongside countries like the Bahamas, French Polynesia and the Maldives. We are the only region in Europe to take this action and an important one it is too.
Sharks play a very important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems by preventing the domination of any of the species beneath them in the food chain. As apex predators, they pretty much control the whole food web. In Yellowstone park, wolves were re-introduced in 1995 after an absence of over 70 years. Much like with sharks, wolves also have a following of haters who were concerned with this bold move. Yet today, this project is heralded as a massive ecological success; beaver numbers have increased, willow, aspen and cotton plant numbers have also increased, creating new habitats for other animals to return. It has even been suggested that the increase in beavers has reduced concerns for wildfires in Yellowstone park through the beavers logging habits. Sharks play an equally significant role in the marine environment and this is the main reason that their protection in BGTW is so forward thinking.
And yet, I have heard it said that we have such a small coastline that the protective measures will hardly make a difference to the damage done by shark exploitation within the region. This is correct in part, as Gibraltar does not control the marine environment for the entire region. That reasoning fails to consider the position that the protection has put us in. Gibraltar is now a global ambassador for shark protection and we should be pushing it in the region and beyond. Further, many marine protected areas across the pond are about as large as our coastline area, effectively debunking the small coastline hypothesis.
Gibraltar should be proud of this legislation protecting an order of animals that have been on the planet for over 400 million years; by contrast humans have been around for 200 thousand years. Yet in that brief time, we are pushing these ancient animals to the precipice of extinction. Ponder that next time you get cold feet whilst swimming in the deep blue with that famous theme tune in your head. If I were a shark, I wouldn’t be swimming towards you, rather, I would be swimming away, fast!