Life after Jaws isn't easy for a struggling shark species.
On January 6, 1998, a 14-foot great white shark, trapped in shallow waters off Cape Town, South Africa, was attacked and beaten to death by beachgoers armed with steel rods and other weapons. Apparently ill, the struggling shark was butchered to such an extent that not enough remained for an autopsy. The next day newspapers ran photographs of the remains, surrounded by smiling men, women, and children. The headline should have read, "Another Great White Shark Victim of Unprovoked Attack by Humans."
Florida, which has the highest number of shark-induced injuries in the United States, recorded 180 attacks and four deaths between 1959 and 1990, according to the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History. The number of people who died due to shark attacks in this country for the same period averaged less than one every two years. In comparison, an average of 47 people a year were killed in coastal areas by lightning.
How, considering the statistics, did the shark--especially the great white--become humans' greatest natural nemesis? Nan Rice, a South African marine conservationist, blames the film Jaws, calling it "a character assassination of sharks."
The legacy of terror instilled by the film lingers. Hunters armed with large boats, heavy fishing tackle, spears, and rifles kill sharks off the coasts of California, Florida, New York, and elsewhere. The great white is also important as a big-game fish in Australia and South Africa.
Commonly taken as by-catch in commercial fisheries, the great white is the center of a lucrative trade, especially in fins, with demand driven by Chinese communities throughout the world. Shark meat is also sold fresh, dried salted, or smoked. Liver oil is extracted for vitamins. Carcasses are used for fish meal, the skin for leather. Trophy hunters will pay $1,000 for a great white shark jaw.
Many marine scientists believe that the great white shark, which once lived throughout temperate and subtropical regions of the world's oceans, is in decline. The IUCN--World Conservation Union classifies the species as "vulnerable" to extinction. The population in southern Australia has seriously dropped in recent years, and in 1997, the country offered the species special protection. South Africa and the United States also offer some protections, but the shark is still exploited as a game fish.
Only by learning more about the shark can we dispel the destructive myths surrounding it. Recent research shows that far from being a crude killing machine, the white shark is selective in what it eats and uses sophisticated food-finding mechanisms. It has a well-developed sense of smell, better eyesight than previously thought, cells on the underside of its snout that detect subtle changes in water pressure, and highly sensitive receptors that respond to even weak electrical fields. This shark is not the devouring man-eater it is often portrayed to be. It prefers blubbery marine mammals, usually harbor seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and small toothed whales. It occasionally feeds on sea turtles and sea otters.
Little is known of reproduction. White sharks are ovoviviparous: They hold eggs inside their bodies until the young are ready to hatch. The babies, or pups, are born fully formed and ready to hunt. They are deserted by the mother at birth in shallow coastal waters, where there is plenty of food and few predators. A female gives birth to between one and three babies per litter.
Wide-ranging marine species such as sharks are extremely difficult to protect through conservation projects. Success depends upon increasing public awareness of their value and the need for protection. Such awareness is generally high in South Africa (with a few notable exceptions) and in southern Australia. This is not the case in many European countries, such as Italy.
A fundamental change in thinking is needed before the great white will be safe. So long as people see themselves as the center of nature, any animal that threatens humans will be ugly and unworthy of life.
Contributing editor and veterinarian Mark Jerome Walters writes frequently on endangered species.