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Fact Finders: Sharks face unfair stigma

Exaggerated myths and fear mongering have long made sharks unnecessary victims. The commonly cited misconception that sharks have a heightened sense of smell and that they can smell small amounts of blood from miles away have made many weary of the sea and fearful of these aquatic beasts. These poorly informed myths, however, say little about factual shark research.

Sharks have a complex olfactory system that surpasses that of many other animals, adding to its predatory edge. Their nares, or nostrils, are located on either side of their snout and are so sensitive that they can detect minute smells from up to one part per 25 million. This, however, translates only to roughly a third of a mile when in the ocean.

Despite this fact, their unrivaled sense of smell does not spell disaster for a human swimming with a paper cut. There were 98 injuries and six deaths related to shark encounters that were reported in 2015. Though this equates to a large increase from 2014’s 72 shark-related injuries, scientists attribute this record increase with El Nino, global warming and a rise in vacationing beach-goers. Scientists surmise that shark attacks are instead decreasing proportionately.

The odds of being attacked by a shark prove to be much less than other dangers at the beach, with it being 75 times more likely for someone to be struck by lightning and 290 times more likely for someone to be killed in a boating accident than to have a dangerous encounter with a shark. Sharks often do not consider humans to be prey. Most sharks tend to prefer smaller-sized prey, including squid, clams and even plankton. Sharks that do get involved with humans tend have bigger prey, such as dolphins, and mistake humans for possible food.

The increase in public fear regarding sharks can be attributed to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 hit movie Jaws, which featured a killer shark that terrorized a small community. By this time, sharks had already become a common nuisance for fisheries who would keep ruining nets and losing good fish. As fear sparked, so did interest as people took to hunting sharks in search of jaw trophies. At this same time, shark fin soup became a more sought out delicacy, contributing to a skyrocketing shark mortality.

Each year, 100 million sharks are killed due to culling, hunting and netting accidents. These numbers starkly contrast that of shark-related human deaths and more care should be taken to ensuring these creatures do not lose their place on their food pyramid. Despite the fear that surrounds sharks, they actually play a crucial role in maintaining balance in the world’s ecosystems.

Jennifer Ovenden, Ph.D., a principal research fellow at University of Queensland, warned, “Managing shark populations is very challenging … like humans, sharks can live for a very long time and their rate of reproduction is comparatively low.” A decrease in shark population may adversely affect the entire oceanic ecosystem and, in turn, our world. Paradoxically, an absence of sharks could result in a decrease in other aquatic populations. Studies in Belize have shown that a decrease in shark populations resulted in a decrease in parrotfish population, which destroyed coral reefs that support a vast number of organisms. Their population control of other species also regulates oxygen and greenhouse gases much more efficiently than rainforests.

Misinformation has long perpetuated harmful myths that have contributed to a strong public fear of sharks. People should invest more into protecting these creatures and placing firmer restrictions on fisheries. Sharks ultimately keep our world in balance and more care should be taken to protect these important sea creatures.

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