Please, do not stab the sharks.
The recent video of a Cayman Brac scuba diving instructor removing a large kitchen knife from the head of a nurse shark has drawn thousands of views and sparked near-universal condemnation from commenters who, like us, are astonished that a human being could be so cruel to an innocent and graceful animal.
Due to their appearance, their rows of large and razor-sharp teeth and “negative publicity” from movies such as “Jaws,” sharks have a bad reputation in the minds of many people who think of the ocean predators as being cold-blooded killers. Strictly speaking, there’s some truth to that (especially if you’re a smaller fish!), but on balance, the proper attitude to have toward sharks is one of healthy respect, rather than fear.
However, in regard to the shark that was stabbed, we doubt very much that was a case of someone being scared and acting in self-defense. The more probable theory is that a local fisherman had caught the shark on a line or a net, and pulled it in close enough to try to “finish it off” with the kitchen knife.
While the diver who helped the shark showed bravery and compassion, whoever stabbed the shark was acting in the opposite manner. Sharks play a vital role in Cayman’s important reef ecosystem. Nurse sharks, in particular, are gentle creatures that dine on fish, shrimp, squid, shellfish and even coral, but as a rule do not bite humans unless they are stepped on or harassed.
Because of their appearance and demeanor, nurse sharks are popular attractions for tourists who come to the Cayman Islands in order to dive or snorkel. A 2015 study by the Department of Environment and Marine Conservation International estimated that “The value of having sharks on the reef is about US$54 million per year. By contrast, catching and killing sharks was worth only US$1.6 million per year.”
Apart from ecology, economics and common decency, there are legal reasons to abstain from killing sharks. Namely, the National Conservation Law protects all species of sharks under threat of a penalty of a $500,000 fine, four years’ imprisonment, or both.
Now, we will not take it upon ourselves to attempt to rehabilitate the image of sharks in this column – we will leave that task up to people like Dr. Guy Harvey and his Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, which supports research and education efforts about sharks and other fish.
However, we will share with readers a handful of what we think are interesting facts about these amazing creatures. Did you know:
- Sharks are some of the oldest vertebrates (i.e., having spines) that still exist on Earth
- Sharks have been swimming in our planet’s oceans for more than 400 million years. That actually predates the current configuration of oceans and continents. For example, the Pangea supercontinent formed about 335 million years ago and began to break apart 175 million years ago
- The evolution of sharks also predates the evolution of trees (360 million years ago) and dinosaurs (230 million years ago)
- Sharks have survived five massive planet-level extinction events, including the impact of an asteroid or comet 66 million years ago that led to the extinction of dinosaurs
- In the current time period, humans are responsible for killing at least 100 million sharks a year and perhaps as many as 270 million. Some 70 million or more annual shark deaths can be attributed to commercial fisherman seeking to satisfy demand in China for shark fin soup
Last year, there were some 100 documented shark attacks on humans. Eight were fatal.