Seven years ago, I jumped into shark-infested waters. Three dozen black-tipped reef sharks swarmed around me while two 12-foot tiger sharks circled the perimeter. There was no cage — just 12 divers and a swarm of sharks, sometimes literally brushing past us. They darted above, below, and beside me in the silent and shallow blue waters off South Africa.
Sharks are in. Who wants to sit on an overcrowded boat, squinting queasily through binoculars or struggling to click your camera in time with the flip of a humpback’s tail, when you can come face-to-face with one of the top predators of the sea? Sharks are the new whales, my friends. And I’m not just talking about tourism.
What really makes sharks the new whales is a global change in conservation priorities from “Save the whales!” to “Save the sharks!” Five species of sharks and both species of manta rays finally received trade restriction protections at an international meeting in Bangkok this month. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species meeting brings together 177 nations every two years to determine which species should be listed in one of three appendices with varying levels of trade protection. The last CITES meeting was a total bust for sharks. Four shark-protection proposals were rejected.
This year was different. All three hammerhead species, the porbeagle shark, the oceanic whitetip and manta rays have joined the basking shark, whale shark and great white shark on Appendix II, which requires permits to export these species. That may not sound like much, but countries can issue permits only if fishermen prove they caught the sharks legally and sustainably — a tall order because many populations of these species have declined more than 90 percent in just the last half-century. In fact, a week before CITES convened, a study found that approximately 100 million sharks are being killed each year, primarily to meet demand for the shark fin trade. Oceanic whitetip fins can bring in $45 a pound; hammerhead fins can fetch double that. “These seriously threatened sharks and rays can finally get some breathing room to recover,” says Rick MacPherson, the conservation programs director at the Coral Reef Alliance.
Sharks and whales share the same basic history: the same bad PR, the same enemies, and even similar biological characteristics that contributed to their vulnerability in the first place.
Let’s start with sharks’ image problem. Its origin is no mystery: Shark attacks do happen, even if they’re 47 times less common than being struck by lightning. In 1975, Jaws took shark phobia to new heights, “galvanizing whole generations into misbelieving that sharks were bloodthirsty man-eaters,” MacPherson says. But whales once played pop culture villains, too: Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg (and Ahab’s vindictive quest didn’t work out too well for him or his crew), and Monstro swallowed Geppetto and killed Pinocchio.
Just as our fear of whales turned to awe, so has our attitude shifted about sharks. Bruce, the smiling shark in Finding Nemo, and friends chanted “Fish are friends, not food,” and a Shark Stanley campaign at the CITES meeting portrayed a friendlier kind of shark. “There’s a loud chorus of people in the scientific community and conservation world doing their best to dispel stereotypes,” says David Shiffman, a graduate student in ecosystem science and policy at the University of Miami.