July 3, 2014

Great Whites on the upswing

by Heather Falconer

We all know the iconic tune: A single cello plays a deep ‘G’ and ‘A’, then a pause. It repeats the same two notes continually for many bars, each time the speed picking up until it almost sounds as though the strings and instrument are being sawed in half.

Our response as listeners is visceral. Chills run down our spines, muscles clench, we look over our shoulders and have all we can do not to get up and run.

The tune, of course, is the theme song to the 1975 blockbuster film Jaws: A film that in one summer managed to tap into the primal fear of people all over the world  and solidify a perception of sharks as killing-machines with a particular taste for humans. A perception that lingers to this day.

FIGURE 6 from Curtis et al.: White shark relative abundance. See doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099240.g006

The effect of this movie on shark populations  cannot be underestimated. After seeing the film, people were literally afraid to go into the water and began to wage an all-out assault on the creatures. Recreational  shark fishing and trophy-hunting increased sharply, with the Great White being at the top of the list, and shark populations in general began a steady decrease in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. This decline increased further in the 1980s due to commercial fishing practices: mainly the collection of fins for shark fin soup, and accidental entanglement in commercial nets and fishing lines (“bycatch”).

In January 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the findings of the first-ever global analysis of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, and chimera) and found that at least a quarter of all shark and ray species world-wide are threatened with extinction. An IUCN study on pelagic (open-ocean) sharks and rays – which include Great Whites – increases that threat to 32 percent.

(c) Creative Commons

While there is much to be done in the realm of shark conservation, there is some good news making its way over the horizon. A paper recently published in PLOS ONE shows the Great White population off the coast of California to be higher than previously thought, and another study shows the populations in the Northern Atlantic to be on the rise, as well. These population rebounds are no doubt the result of protection efforts on Great Whites implemented in the early 1990s.

As the summer season kicks into high gear and more people are on or near the water, shark sightings have begun to increase. And so has the fear. Which is why it is as important a time as any to remember the facts about sharks and our relative risks:

To Learn More:

From Oceana, an explanation on the importance of sharks in oceanic ecosystems.

News Story: First Shark Sighting of 2014 in Cape Cod Bay

International Union on Conservation of Nature – Red List

Ichthyology at the Florida Museum of Natural History: Information on shark fishing in US territories

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.

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