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You're more likely to die of bee sting than shark bite

Sharks may be one of the most feared animals on the planet, but it is humans doing the killing.
David Clode/Unsplash
Sharks may be one of the most feared animals on the planet, but it is humans doing the killing.

OPINION: Media hype plays a major part in inciting irrational fears, and lately there has been a lot of it regarding sharks.

Unfortunately sharks are often falsely portrayed as the terrors of the seas.

Decades ago, blockbuster movies such as ‘Jaws’ wrongly began cementing these misunderstood animals into people’s minds as blood thirsty man-eating monsters. Such films have arguably made sharks public enemy number one, resulting in much ignorance-fuelled backlash towards sharks, which continues to this day in epic proportions.

A whale shark swims in West Papua.
A whale shark swims in West Papua.

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Consequently, many people fear sharks beyond all reason, despite the overwhelming majority of species in fact being quite harmless. Sharks aren’t the big scary beasts that everyone would have you believe, of the nearly 500 species of sharks in the world, only 10 species (5 per cent) have been reported to have attacked humans.

Around 70 species of sharks occupy different habitats in New Zealand's waters, ranging from coastal shores, to the open ocean, and the depths of the continental slope. They vary from the tiny pygmy shark, to small spotted dogfish and school sharks, to everything in between such as blue, thresher, basking, bronze whaler, hammerhead, mako, oceanic white tip and great white sharks, to the giant whale shark.

A reef shark swims in the Maldives.
Nadja Brandt/Bloomberg
A reef shark swims in the Maldives.

The diets of these shark species vary widely, some are mere plankton feeders, others feed on crabs or schools of fish, while others prey on marine mammals. It’s fair to say that sharks are picky eaters and that we are not a target item on their menu, meaning most would not initiate an unprovoked ‘attack’.

While the term ‘shark attack’ is in common use for instances of humans being wounded by sharks, it is based on the misconception that large predatory sharks seek out humans as prey. Only in very rare instances has a shark clearly predated on a human, which would classify the incident as an ‘attack’, implying predation. It is generally more accurate to classify bites as incidents - which can consist of physical interaction without harm, minor and major bite incidents, or fatal incidents.

When an incident does occur, it tends to be by sharks which hunt marine mammals, such as the great white shark, which is frequently seen close to large seal colonies. While great white sharks have killed humans in unprovoked bite incidents, they typically do not target us. Most bite incidents in the last two centuries have been non-fatal. Many of the incidents appeared to be test bites.

As apex predators, sharks are critical to marine ecosystems, without them the food chain collapses.
As apex predators, sharks are critical to marine ecosystems, without them the food chain collapses.

Great white sharks are known to investigate objects floating near the surface, by biting them. They have been sighted test-biting buoysflotsam and other unfamiliar objects, and may grab a human or a surfboard to identify what it is. Such incidents tend to occur in waters with low visibility or in situations which have impaired the shark's senses.

A typical shark attack would be: You are swimming in waters that are frequented by sharks, where you catch the attention of a nearby shark, who mistakes you for a prey item. The shark circles, bumps you, and takes a bite. Suddenly, there's an unsavoury taste in the shark's mouth, who promptly lets go and swims away to find something edible to eat. If you're lucky, and most people are, you'll end up with a few stitches, or maybe lose a limb.

The truth is, great white sharks do not appear to like the taste of human flesh, or at the very least find the taste unfamiliar. Research shows that these sharks can tell in one bite whether or not the object is worth predating upon. The digestive systems of sharks is  much too slow to effectively digest our many bones, which is why there is almost always a body if a shark incident has turned fatal. They much prefer seals, which have high blubber content and are rich in protein. Any incident has therefore generally been undertaken mistakenly.

Sharks cannot sustain the massive fishing pressures they are under.
Sharks cannot sustain the massive fishing pressures they are under.

While a bite incident is a potential risk for anyone swimming, diving, surfing or kayaking in areas frequented by species such as great white sharks, actual incidents on humans are rare in New Zealand, even in areas where these sharks are seasonally abundant. Furthermore, fatal shark attacks are very rare. In short, the odds of dying from a shark bite are incredibly slim, you are more likely to die of a lightning strike, bee sting, dog bite or the flu.

The year with the highest annual shark 'attacks' was 2018 - with 101 incidents recorded globally. Out of these an average of eight are fatal incidents annually. That's eight people out of 7.7 billion.

The great contradiction is, sharks aren't quite as lucky when it comes to being hunted by their most formidable predator, they suffer greatly at the hands of humankind. For those few people taken by sharks due to their natural instincts, up to 300 million sharks are killed by us every year. So, who is the real predator, and who should be fearing who? Eight human deaths vs 300 million shark deaths per annum. It's fair to say humans are the problem here, not sharks.

Sharks may be one of the most feared animals on the planet, but it is humans doing the killing. Around 11,415 sharks are killed every hour, that's 190 sharks every minute. In the last 50 years, the slaughter of sharks has risen by 400 per cent.

Sharks are the victims of culling to make beaches 'safer', by catch by commercial fishing vessels, trophy catches, and the practice of shark finning. The exploitation of sharks has become a dire situation, with many regional shark populations decimated and a decline of more than 90 per cent.

Sharks, slow to reproduce, cannot sustain the massive fishing pressures they are under. Add to that indirect threats such as habitat degradation due to coastal development, decreasing ocean productivity, increasing pollution and acidification, plus climate change, which all impact important inshore breeding and feeding habitats.

New Zealand is recognised as a global hotspot for the declining great white shark, which has been fully protected from fishing in our waters since April 2007. The great white, mako, basking, oceanic whitetip, thresher, spiny dogfish and hammerhead sharks are  now classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; while the whale shark is classified as endangered. As it stands, extinction is anticipated for one third of all shark species, unless urgent action is taken to promote population recovery.

Human activities threaten ocean-wide biodiversity. As apex predators, sharks are critical to marine ecosystems, without them the food chain collapses. The ocean is their home, not ours. Humans need to take responsibility, not revenge, for choosing to share the ocean with sharks. Let's make an effort to put fear mongering behind us and to protect these magnificent animals, who until we came along, enjoyed a safe ocean environment for over 420 million years.

How you can help sharks

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