Hawaii's sharks are misunderstood
Common misconceptions instill a fear of sharks in humans, but the creature that is actually in danger is the shark itself.
Friday, February 12, 2010 - 04:38
Last year there were 55 unprovoked shark attacks upon humans, 41 of those in the U.S., including four in Hawaii. In contrast, humans killed about 100 million sharks over the same period, according to the International Shark Attack File, a database administered by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History.
By comparing the data it is easy to see that the top predators in the ocean are actually humans. When a shark attacks a human, the story makes front-page news, but the 100 million sharks that humans have killed hardly receive any press. This unbalanced distribution of attention does not seem to make sense considering the vital role sharks play in the ocean's ecosystem.
The chance of being bitten by a shark in Hawaii is less than one in a million according to Hawaii Sharks, a Web site containing content from both local and national shark experts and organizations. It is important to put the statistics into perspective: last year only four people were attacked in Hawaii, but consider how many people enter the waters around Hawaii year round. This is a very low ratio of attacks. It has even been said that vending machines kill more people a year than sharks do.
Forty species of sharks are found in the waters around the Hawaii. These species range from the eight-inch pygmy shark to the 50-foot whale shark. The most common are grey reef sharks, sandbar sharks, Galapagos sharks and tiger sharks. The occurrence of each species varies from island to island.
Some Native Hawaiians consider sharks to be significant ancestor spirits and have a deep respect for them. Cultural individuals in Hawaii have compared their significance to chiefs. Regardless of the humans' opinion of sharks, there is no question that they play an important part in the ocean ecosystem, although the full extent is not yet known.
There are many studies that show that sharks help uphold the health and balance of the ocean ecosystem. For instance, there was a series of events in the Atlantic Ocean where a decline in shark populations led to an increase in ray populations. That increase led to a decrease in scallop populations. Examples like this demonstrate the shark's substantial impact upon the complex food chain.
Shark numbers are dropping at an alarming rate. Many scientists believe that the large-scale killing of sharks will lead to major changes in the ocean's ecosystem. The act of shark finning in particular is an immense threat to shark populations. Shark fins are cut off while the sharks are still alive and collected for shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. The finless sharks are thrown back into the ocean where they starve to death, are eaten by other fish, or drown.
I came across an interesting article in Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines that told the story of Mike Coots, a shark attack survivor from Kauai. Coots is using the publicity from his attack to help with shark conservation. He knows what it is like to lose a limb because he lost his leg in the encounter, so he is focusing his efforts on trying to stop sharks from losing theirs.
Shark experts and enthusiasts believe the solution to this widespread problem is through education, awareness and research. The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology Shark Research Group is one example of a local organization that is working to learn more about these mysterious predators.
When humans enter the ocean, wherever they are in the world, they must recognize that they are in a wilderness environment and exercise caution. For tips on how to avoid unwanted shark encounters, click here.