Reconnecting with Sharks

Paper: López de la Lama R, De la Puente S, Riveros JC (2018) Attitudes and misconceptions towards sharks and shark meat consumption along the Peruvian coast. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202971.

An Animal we Love to Fear

Great White Shark
Many fear sharks, even though most are under four feet long and none have a taste for humans. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hermanus Backpackers

Sharks: the superstars of many fan-favorite horror movies. “Jaws”, “Sharknado”, and “The Meg” all feature sharks as a monster we love to fear. Frequent news focusing on shark attack events don’t help their reputation either. Mass media and pop culture references construct sharks as deadly, human-eating animals, disconnecting sharks from their true role and purpose: sharks are an essential part of the environment. Unfortunately, these animals are facing the most danger in the entirety of their 450 million year old existence. What can we do to protect these amazing elasmobranchs? The first step is reconnecting with sharks.

A great way to think about why sharks are integral to marine ecosystems is understanding that they’re “doctors” of the ocean. These animals typically predate on sick or injured fish, keeping their environment healthy and also making sure we’re not the ones eating those fish. As apex predators, they help maintain the balance of animals lower on the food chain. Through their diet, sharks also indirectly manage marine vegetation, like sea grass, which compete with coral for nutrients. Essentially, sharks play a key role in the homeostasis of marine ecosystems and preservation of coral.

Who Poses the Real Threat?

Shark Fins
Shark fins are status symbols in many countries. The unsustainable practice of “finning” kills massive amounts of sharks. Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Why, then, are these animals facing such danger? Due to unsustainable fishing methods, such as longlines or gillnets which increase how often they are accidentally caught, paired with “finning”, our fishing practices are rapidly decimating shark populations. Overfishing these animals where demand exists also destroys population numbers. Their slow growth rates (the greenland shark, for example, can live up to 500 years), late maturation, how long their pregnancy terms are, and overall low fertility (Lopez de la Lama et al., 2018) make it incredibly hard for sharks to bounce back from these threats.

Although conservation initiatives exist, it’s hard to get communities to support the preservation and protection of sharks. One factor inhibiting conservation is that same negative image sharks hold, constructed on the basis of inaccurate information. Even though you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than experience a shark attack, sharks can unfortunately hold the image of man-eating animals that need to be removed for human safety. Fear-inducing negative imagery largely contributes to non-engagement and lack of investment in conservation initiatives that attempt to protect sharks. Our interactions with sharks show us that active policy is not enough when it isn’t backed by community investment. Through education, among other knowledge-building efforts, we can effectively advocate for the conservation of this prehistoric, wondrous species.

Attitudes Regarding Sharks in Coastal Peru

Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) exemplify how misconceptions and negative attitudes regarding sharks specifically affect conservation initiatives in Peru. Having among the highest diversity of marine life in the world, Peru is home to 66 shark species and is a huge player in both domestic and international shark trade. Shark meat consumption has been a part of Peruvian culture and tradition for about 10,000 years (Lopez de la Lama et al., 2018). In 2006-2015 alone, Peru landed about 8,000 tonnes per year on average of sharks caught by longlines or gillnets – and only 6 species accounted for 98% of the catch. Additionally, official records of shark fishing tend to be misleading as species are often misidentified. Many sharks are reported as “tollo”, a generic name for shark which originally referred specifically to hound sharks. Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) studied exactly what Peruvian attitudes towards and consumption rates of sharks looked like in 11 coastal cities.

Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) found that 72.4% of the surveyed population (n=1451) currently eat or have eaten sharks. Most shark meat consumers reported to only have eaten “tollo”. Additionally, participants’ age and those who claimed to have eaten either “tollo” or “tiburón” (shark) were negatively correlated. Older participants were more likely to have reported consuming shark meat than younger participants. While only 57.6% of the surveyed population knew that sharks inhabited Peru’s waters, younger participants were less aware of sharks’ existence. Only less than half of the participants who knew about sharks in Peru were able to name at least one shark species by their common name.

More participants claim to currently eat or have eaten “tollo” than “tiburón”. However, the younger the participant, the less likely they were to have eaten either “tollo” or “tiburón”. Source: Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018)

Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) found that Peruvians in the surveyed coastal cities held significant, negative views towards sharks. Of the 5,772 words associated with sharks, 14 words accounted for 66.3% of the total. These words were: “fear”, “dangerous”, “big”, “blood”, “death”, “teeth”, “sea”, “predator”, “murderer”, “danger”, “terror”, “carnivorous”, “fierce”, and “movie”. Researchers categorized the words into “Ecological and Biological Knowledge”, “Negative Feelings” and “Negative traits”. Furthermore, there were no references to the integral role sharks serve in marine environments. Reported words suggest that Peruvians see sharks as dangerous, human-eating animals, even though there have been absolutely no reported shark attacks (lethal or otherwise) in Peruvian waters.

A word cloud of words participants associated with sharks. The larger the word, the greater the frequency. Source: Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018).

Considerations for your Next Movie Night

Misconceptions and negative attitudes about sharks inhibit their conservation and harm their population all over the world. Interestingly enough, Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) saw that people with a university level education, who knew that sharks inhabited Peruvian waters, or who knew “tollo” is used as a generic name for sharks had higher (more positive) individual attitude scores towards sharks. These findings support the importance of education in fostering personal experience and engagement with the animals we need to conserve and protect. By working to increase the understanding of these animals, we can bolster the effect of local policy-making with community investment. For example, Lopez de la Lama et al. (2018) explain that by highlighting the indispensable role shark meat has played in Peruvian culture, local policy could push for research on sustainable shark fishing, while implementing public awareness campaigns emphasizing why Peruvians need sharks to exist. The correlation between misconceptions, negative attitudes, and media doesn’t mean you can’t pop on “Sharknado” next Saturday night. What it does demonstrate, however, is that when we truly learn about a species and bust the negative, terrifying myths that affect their population degradation, we have a better chance at creating powerful and successful conservation movements.

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