Would you shoot a panda? No. These days most living creatures are protected: tigers, lions, gorillas… but it’s a different story for sharks.
In today’s era of social media, #foodporn has anchored itself in our daily lives on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to food, we do not just eat for energy – we now demand the best-looking AND best-tasting food. How does this compare with animals, specifically those at the top of the oceanic food chain: sharks?
Do they pay as much attention to what they eat?
We all know that shark attacks are a very real threat. In 2015, NSW recorded 14 unprovoked incidents (resulting in one fatality) while 4 incidents occurred in Queensland, two in Western Australia, and one in South Australia & Victoria. There was one provoked fatality in 2015 involving a hookah diver in Tasmania. According to the Australian shark attack file annual report for 2015, the figures for Australian shark bite injuries and fatalities remain very small in comparison to fatalities and injuries occurring while undertaking other recreational water activities at the 11,900 (approximately) beaches around Australia’s 35,000+ kilometre coastline.
But do sharks actually like the taste of us? To them, are we a delicacy? Do they even have tongues and taste buds to enjoy us with?
It turns out that yes, sharks do have tongues, but they are not like ours in their ability to taste. Sharks do have taste buds, located on the papillae lining the mouth and throat, and this helps them decide whether or not to swallow their prey. If the prey is suitable, they eat it. Simple.
The problem, according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is that we are taking more and more from our oceans, meaning sharks have limited choice when it comes to dinner time. The report also says we are spending more time in the ocean. So what’s a hungry shark to do? Turn to humans. We became the ocean’s own McDonalds: we are everywhere, easy and quick to find. And they probably feel just as bad as you do after eating a greasy Big Mac.
Hayley L. Jay worked as a group and educational coordinator at Irukandji in Newcastle, where she created educational resources aligned with the Australian Cross Curriculum Priorities (what is taught at schools). She says sharks don’t really want to eat us. “I think we are too bony and not fleshy enough,” she says. “Our body composition has chemicals that might not react as favourable to their taste buds, as our diet is not primarily composed of seafood.”
She also admits that sharks are opportunistic hunters. “Sharks the same size or larger than a person attack us because they are very hungry after swimming a long distance and see an opportunity for food. With the extremely large decrease in the number of food sources due to over-fishing, they are having to go longer periods of time without food and explore new territories they might not have needed to go to before. You’ll notice that the attacks are usually in the same areas.”
Hayley believes that we are treating sharks like scary-monster pets by giving them food on shark diving tours. It might be one of the reasons they get familiar with humans providing free meals. “I also think sharks in parts of the world are being conditioned to associate humans with a free meal as they become a tourist attraction and humans try to attract them with food for a selfie photo. They forget the shark can then travel to the other side of the world and expect the same treatment,” she says.
It only makes sense that if you are starving after traveling across oceans due to over-fishing, you will go for whatever is available. Their bodies are designed to “pounce” and capture their prey with the element of surprise. The problem isn’t becoming prey in an environment that we know too little about, but that sharks are clearly suffering from a long history of human abuse, fear and the major decrease of their food stock.
Yet the only solutions we have are shark culling, shark nets and other fear fuelled drastic measures. They seem to be short-term alternatives compared to the long term shot, research and fishing regulations. So we shout “monster!” and we assassinate. Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year directly or indirectly by humans around the world. They get caught in nets, they get hunted and killed when they are seen close to the beaches, just for fins or fun. Every year hundreds of sharks are killed by nets or hunted down on our coast. In Queensland alone nearly 700 sharks were killed as part of the catch and kill policy in 2014 (according to ABC News).
It’s hard to believe that after all we are not wanted on the menu at the Eastern Suburbs’ finest tapas bars for sharks. Perhaps it is just our egos playing the centre of the world mind game, whispering, “Of course all the finest Harris Farm products and long hours at the gym and yoga have refined and tenderised our flesh, it has paid off. I am tasty, eat me!”
Perhaps if Matty the great white could talk, he’d say “no offence, but I’ll have some of that rustic seagull for dessert instead”. – Niuhiti Gerbier
Top photo of a shark from Leszek Lesczynski’s Flickr photostream.