Shark. The word alone evokes a primal response in humans. Peter Benchley once commented that when he wrote his novel "Jaws," he unknowingly tapped into some primal fear that exists within people — a fear of being eaten by another animal. Beachgoers on Cape Cod may have been channeling Benchley in recent weeks, as great white sharks have once again been sighted near Chatham, dredging up that thrilling mix of fear and fascination that sharks seem to evoke. While no one wants to see a shark swimming next to their boogie board, the reality is that the likelihood of being bitten by a shark is infinitesimal. And, as Benchley observed in the years following, sharks have far more to fear from us than we do from them.
I swam with my first shark in the 1980s. I was 20 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, working with a group of marine scientists. Late in the day, a 5-foot long blue shark swam into our chum slick. For the next hour I marveled at the animal's stunning indigo color and the elegant way she moved effortlessly through the sea. I was hooked, addicted to sharks.
Since then, I have spent a great deal of time in the company of sharks in waters around the globe and, as recently as last week, right here in New England, where I photographed blue sharks and basking sharks. For a photographer, sharks are a stirring subject, possessing a perfect blend of grace and power. They have been sculpted by evolution and are ideally suited for whichever ecosystem they inhabit, from coral reefs to the open ocean. During decades of exploring underwater and spending time with sharks, I have learned to appreciate how critical they are to the health of the oceans. I have also seen that they are being decimated at alarming rates and desperately need our help.
On Cape Cod, great white shark stocks have been growing, or at least becoming more concentrated, because of the multiplying numbers of seals around Monomoy Island. We are fortunate to have such abundance of these sharks in our own waters. Around the globe, we are killing in excess of 100 million sharks each year. As apex predators — that is, predators that lack natural predators of their own — sharks play a vital role in the health of ocean ecosystems. Yet, in the last six decades, we have lost an estimated 90 percent of shark populations to our own predatory behaviors like overfishing and "finning" sharks for shark fin soup. Remove the predators, and the whole ecosystem begins to crash. As the sharks disappear, the predator-prey balance dramatically shifts, and the health of our oceans declines. Since the majority of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, not to mention much of the world's protein, it is not an exaggeration to say that when our oceans' health declines, our very survival is at risk.
I believe it is time for a new ethic — a new view of the sea and its inhabitants. Like lions and tigers, sharks are predators and must be respected. As human populations increase and more people take to the sea for recreation, we must be vigilant about how our own activities interact with wild animals. We should not view sharks as villains or perpetuate the myth of them as monsters. And although the majority of sharks killed are caught on long lines and in gill nets, I believe the time has passed for individuals posing like dragon-slayers next to a dead shark they have caught. I have the greatest respect for the skill of fishers, but killing sharks should not be celebrated, given how important they are to us.
So with sharks making headlines once again, we should pause to consider the value of these misunderstood animals. Lets take our curiosity and intrigue about sharks to the next level and seek to learn even more about them. Awareness will be followed by concern, followed by conservation.
Brian Skerry, an ocean photojournalist, is photographing sharks and other animals for the New England Ocean Odyssey, a partnership with Conservation Law Foundation to build awareness and to protect New England's ocean.