During the summer of 1975, something happened which was to alter our perspective on sharks. The film ‘Jaws’ was released. The notion of a huge great white shark terrorising the shores and brutally attacking
unsuspecting beach dwellers as they went for a casual paddle was enough to send us humans into a terrified frenzy, and ever since, we’ve feared this beautiful creatures of the deep. It hasn’t helped that the film was so popular, with subsequent filmmakers copying the idea, and fuelling our anxiety.
But are we right to be scared? Yes attacks can occur, but in 2018, there were just 4 deaths worldwide that were attributed to sharks. In that same year, over 100 million sharks died due to humans. Now who should be scared of who?
There are over 500 species of shark worldwide, and together they inhabit a diverse range of niches and marine habitats, which they have adapted to over the last 450 million years they’ve been around. They are incredibly resilient fish, which have withstood 5 mass extinctions, and many species of shark are apex predators, meaning they’re within the top trophic level of the food chain. This may be another reason why they’re feared so much, but without sharks, the health, diversity and entire function of an ecosystem will disintegrate.
At least 21 species of shark live in British waters all year round, with other shark species visiting seasonally too. Unfortunately, 50% of our shark residents are considered to be threatened or near threatened species, and one that is critically endangered is the angel shark, which is not a particularly sought after fish, but has had a history of being caught as by-catch.
The basking shark, the second largest fish in the world, was once regularly seen around the coast of Wales during the summer months. It feeds on zooplankton with its large filter feeding mouth. It looks like it could
swallow a human whole, but it can’t and won’t. Sadly, they are now rarely seen, and although protected in the UK, still many threats remain to this gentle giant.
Only a few sharks in the world are potentially dangerous to humans, and the closest we’ve come to having any of them near was when a white shark (also known as a great white) was captured in 1977, 168 miles off the coast of Cornwall.
If you want to learn more, a new book by William McKeever, ‘Emperor’s of the Deep’ focuses on four shark species (mako, tiger, hammerhead and great white) and argues the importance of caring and embracing our wonderful sharks. We need to protect them, as without them, our oceans will be considerably compromised.