Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. “Teen reels in 874-pound shark” was a headline in yesterday’s Pensacola News Journal. But after reading the article and visiting the comments section I thought a more appropriate title might have been “Boy slays beloved ancestral god. Locals rejoice, but still scared of their own shadows”. People both love and fear sharks, a dichotomy that presents an enormous challenge to their conservation. Although Shark Week has come and gone once again, sharks remain an important part of our lives year round. As top predators, they are critically important for a healthy ocean. Like wolves and lions on land, sharks pick off the weak, injured and “unfit” amongst their prey, insuring the best possible genes move forward. Like sport scouts for the ocean, they’re the reason everything from fish and sea turtles to seals “play” at SuperBowl caliber rather than the Special Olympics.
Unfortunately, sharks and the balance they maintain in the ocean are in trouble. Millions of the animals are killed each year to supply the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Once considered a luxury dish served only at the weddings of well-to-do families, China’s rapid development has made the once cost-prohibitive soup accessible to the masses. And of course it’s only human nature to want what you can’t have and indulge in it once you can. But the economics that have been a blessing to Asia spell bad news for an ocean already in crisis. The majority of sharks killed for soup are simply de-finned and the bulk of their carcass thrown overboard – wasted. Over the past 50 years, we’ve lost around 90% of the big fishes of the ocean – including sharks – and this trend continues to spiral downward. Even more tragic, is that the really big fish are now the most rare. The behemoths amongst sharks are not only the most awe-inspiring and exciting to encounter for humans, but are also the most important for breeding, passing along the best of the species’ genes, and for providing that top tier of predation that keeps larger mammals and such in good shape.
Last year around this time, I had the fantastic opportunity of diving with big sharks in Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon. The Fijian people honor and maintain a special bond with sharks – the qio – who they believe to be kindred souls to humanity and gods above all fish. Protected as a shark sanctuary (the Shark Reef Marine Reserve), participating in one of the Lagoon’s shark dives offers up close and personal exposure to eight species of excellent predator. Blacktip reef, whitetip reef, grey reef, silvertip, tawny nurse, sicklefin lemon and bull sharks are all common on these dives. You’ll see most if not all of those species every time the Fijian locals conduct an underwater feeding. But occasionally, you’ll get one better and a monster-size tiger shark will show up. I happened to be on of those “lucky” dives when she did. The experience was transformational.
To be honest, I’d always been a bit scared of tiger sharks. They have a nasty reputation as unpredictable and voracious predators. A good friend of mine worked for many years in the NOAA Marine Debris Program, cleaning up discarded fishing nets off remote reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Divers in that program work at sea for months at a time, and the only thing they’ll allow to slow their progress is the appearance of a tiger shark. It’s government protocol to clear the water when one is spotted. Any other shark, and they keep on working. So knowing that there was even the potential of a massive tiger shark showing up on the Fiji dive made me a bit nervous. But once it did, I marveled at how intelligently it behaved and just how serene and beautiful of an animal it really was. My attitude towards the shark was almost instantly changed, and I haven’t been able to revert to that old thinking. Rationally, I know that this Beqa Lagoon shark is special, she’s become accustomed to being fed and interacting with people. Tiger sharks in general are indeed a dangerous animal, but rather than fear now, I simply feel great respect and admiration. In this regard, the big girl of Beqa Lagoon is a powerful ambassador for her kind. As one of Fiji’s most popular dives, the Lagoon sees a constant stream of dive tourism and I’d wager I’m nowhere near alone in terms of the “attitude adjustment” I’ve experienced. And if one shark has the potential to transform the mindset of a lifelong ocean lover and advocate like me – someone “used” to sharks – I can only imagine the impact she has on someone less familiar with the sea.
My heightened admiration for tiger sharks is one reason I was saddened to see the headline in yesterday’s Pensacola News Journal. The shark in question was a large tiger, caught by 15-year old Chase Jackson as part of the Outcast Mega Shark Tournament. Growing up in Ocean City, Maryland, I’m familiar with the value and excitement that such tournaments bring to town. Ocean City’s White Marlin Open is an annual event that is important for the city’s tourism revenue, as well as a lot of fun for locals and visitors alike with all of it’s associated fanfare and festivities. And thankfully, these tournaments are seeing a growing trend towards “catch and release”. At least in the case of Ocean City’s Open, only potential record-breakers are taken in to be weighed. The rest are photographed, cut loose and bid a fond farewell back to life in the sea. Of course, I wish it was the big ones they were releasing due to all the reasons mentioned earlier on their ecological value. But giving credit where credit is due, the fact that most of the fish are released is a good thing. Considering my familiarity of these types of events, my surprised reaction on the Pensacola shark was not so much focused on the competition that encourages needless execution of such a magnificent animal, but rather on the attitudes of the readers as expressed in the comments section. From what I can assess, the people of Pensacola actually feel threatened by this animal and rejoiced in it’s slaughter based on feelings of personal safety. A reader identified as “Lakewoodwife” made the comment “I’d much rather see this HUGE shark caught, weighed and DEAD rather than meet up with it in the water somewhere nose to snout!!! Congrats, young man …….. I feel safer knowing there’s a few less sharks out there to have ME or my kids and grandkid for the main course!!!”. And reader “Rader” said “Tiger sharks are Man Eaters kill’em all!”. Such fears can only be described as ignorance, fueled by sensationalist media and entertainment. To my knowledge, there have been no attacks on humans by tiger sharks on the Florida panhandle and certainly no deaths caused by them. Thus these reactions are primal, ignorant and wrong.
While fear is one thing, ravenous blood lust is another. The reader, “Sharkkilla187” proclaimed “who wouldnt want the jaws from this magnificent beast above there bed?”. Well, I wouldn’t. Aside from it being a health hazard here in earthquake country, the fact is, the real threat to our personal safety is the removal of these animals from the ocean. Much in the same way you wouldn’t start removing parts of an airplane while in mid-flight, we can’t remove such an important component of the ocean ecosystem and expect it to continue “flying”. Which, in this case, means the ocean’s capacity to continue providing all of the benefits that we’ve depended upon for millennia. These “benefits” include climate control, our oxygen supply, recreation, inspiration and food production. Without apex predators, we’re one step closer to an acidic and warm jellyfish soup that’s no good to anyone and, in fact, may be outright harmful to us.
But to me, especially after the enlightening experience in Fiji, the greatest tragedy of Chase Jackson’s celebrated slaughter is the loss of this great beast to humanity. Once butchered, it will no longer bring awe, joy or inspiration to anyone. No one can catch and release it, no one can photograph it from above or under the water, and through it no one will marvel as to what a miracle nature is. Perhaps Florida would be better served in following Fiji’s example for tourism? Sharks of this magnitude are not a dime a dozen. They are rare, slow to reach this size and disappearing fast. If protected, the potential tourism revenue that could be derived from their presence could be continuous rather than a one-shot splash in the local paper. Certainly shark feeding is a contentious practice, sure. But visiting sharks on their own turf – especially in the areas where they congregate to breed, feed and give birth – is not. Jupiter, Florida enjoys a regular boom in dive tourism each year as lemon sharks come together in winter months for breeding. Florida’s other sharks are doing this elsewhere, and with the science of tagging and biologging, it’s easier than ever to figure out where these sharky “hotspots” are. Scientist are often hesitant to release such data for fear that it will be used to exploit the species for fishing. But what if we proactively protected such spots and exploited them instead for dive tourism? Both the species and the economy would prosper from such an arrangement. And rather than an impressive set of teeth hung over one 15 year old boy’s bed, stunning photographs would adorn thousands of walls, magazine covers and websites – inspiring both the current and future generation of ocean enthusiasts. So to Chase Jackson, I congratulate you on your impressive catch this time around. But as for the future of catching and killing, Easy there tiger. We need sharks.