Sharks: Myths and Realities

Every summer, the ominous display of a dorsal fin sends crowds scurrying for the shore—and newspaper headlines exploding with warnings. Find out why that’s the wrong way to act.
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Caribbean reef shark in Jardines de la Reina, Cuba
EYE TO EYE: A Caribbean reef shark in Jardines de la Reina, Cuba (Carlos Suárez)

The shark's reputation as a killer was sealed in the public imagination with the 1975 release of Jaws, a movie with imagery so powerful that the book's author, Peter Benchley, devoted the rest of his life to dismantling the character he had helped create. The shark in the book and subsequent film was a brutal, instinctive killer with a dozen rows of jagged teeth and a taste for human flesh. The bloodthirsty great white has become an archetype so pervasive that even a news story reporting on a harmless two-foot sand shark can't resist recalling the Jaws mythos.

The reality of shark attacks, however, is that they are few and far between. Out of hundreds of shark species, only great white, tiger, and bull sharks have been involved in unprovoked attacks. Since 2003, sharks have killed only four people a year on average, according to the International Shark Attack File. That puts your chances of being killed by a shark at 1 in 264 million.

Sharks may not be the relentless killers they're made out to be, but there is still a victim in shark-human interaction—the shark itself. Humans kill more than 100 million sharks a year, resulting in a steep decline in shark populations around the world.

The biggest threat to sharks stems from an Asian delicacy that has grown exponentially popular in recent years: shark fin soup. Often presented at weddings, this thin soup is seasoned with shark fin as a traditional flourish, even though the fin adds no flavor or nutritional value. Unfortunately for sharks, slaughter for their fins results in an inglorious death: once the fins have been sliced off, the sharks are often thrown overboard to die. Shark finning is illegal in many nations, but that doesn't stop fishermen from killing up to 73 million sharks a year.

Millions of other sharks are killed annually for their meat or a liver oil called squalene that is used in cosmetics, or as an incidental bycatch when fishing ships set lines and nets for other seafood species.

Sharks are a vital part of a healthy ocean. Much like wolves in the western United States or tigers in Asia, the presence of sharks indicates a working ecosystem that is healthy at all levels, from microscopic phytoplankton on up the food chain. Sighting a shark, then, should be less a cause for concern than for celebration. Although it wouldn't hurt to give it a little room.

Published: 11 Jun 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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