Sharks are scary, but we need them

Shark!

The very word is enough to send swimmers scrambling frantically to get out of the ocean and safely onto the beach.

But when it comes to sharks ,what is truth and what is myth?

Are they vicious monsters to be shunned and feared? Are they a vital link in the ocean’s complex food chain? Or are they merely — and unfairly — maligned and misunderstood?

It depends on who you ask.

Villagers in some island nations like Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, revere and worship sharks and have for centuries. They claim to have a spiritual connection with the creatures so many others fear and loathe.

Until fairly recently, a few still practiced rituals like shark calling, (summoning sharks from deep waters and capturing them by hand) using a looplike contraption handed down from generation to generation.

The process sometimes borders on the mystical and is scornfully dismissed by skeptics.

Marine biologists around the world often express serious and growing concern about dwindling shark populations and warn that this could have dire consequences for reefs and the overall health of the ocean in the future.

“Consider, for example, the coral reef. Numerous species of small fish graze algae from the reef, keeping it healthy. These fish are consumed by larger fish, which are consumed by sharks,” Dr. Gregory Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist for the state of Massachusetts, said in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

“If we kill off the sharks, the thinking goes, these larger fish thrive and consume the algae-eating species at a rate much higher than normal. The coral reef then becomes smothered by algae and dies.”

Fishermen on Kauai accord sharks a grudging respect, but remain constantly aware of the possible threat they pose. They are cautious when sharks are spotted near their fishing grounds, but can’t help but resent the fact that all they can do is watch helplessly when a shark steals all or a large chunk of an ahi off a line they are reeling in before it reaches the boat.

And of course, there are the numerous shark attacks like the one recently reported on Kauai.

Our island has had its share, ranging from incidents that just left luckier victims with shark-bitten surfboards, but resulted in lacerations and more serious injuries for others.

Probably the most famous Kauai attack in recent years happened on Oct. 31, 2003, at Tunnels Beach on the North Shore. Just 13 years old at the time, Bethany Hamilton was already showing great promise as a surfer when a tiger shark took her left arm and thrust her into the public spotlight. Bethany’s courage, grit and attitude captured the world and made her an instant if somewhat reluctant media darling.

One organization, however, believes that reports of shark attacks are often grossly exaggerated.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an international nonprofit, marine wildlife conservation organization established in 1977, is to “to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

Its campaign, Operation Requiem, focuses on the preservation and protection of sharks.

“Sharks are magnificent creatures that are, on the whole, more scared of us than we could ever be of them. And rightfully so, as they are truly our prey,” states the organization’s website. It also cites startling data to support their premise that sharks are endangered.

Other biologists attribute any increase in shark attacks to a growing population that spends more time at beaches around the world.

Local fishermen, however, can only base their opinions on experiences they have encountered while fishing. For instance, on rare occasions, a shark sometimes swallows a hooked fish and is hooked itself.

When this happens, “It’s a fight to get it near the boat,” one fisherman said. ” Then you gaff it and it really becomes a battle.”

One night years ago, before my sons were old enough to fish with their father, Wayne and I went fishing. He set up a light on the boat and sat on the gunwale and began baiting and preparing his lines.

Suddenly, a large shark broke the surface of the water right besides our boat and thrashed around for a while before disappearing.

I don’t know whether he was trying to get Wayne or was just attracted by the light but it was a frightening experience that neither of us has ever forgotten.

Today, Bethany Hamilton is a wife and mother, professional surfer, and motivational speaker. She is involved in numerous charitable projects. Her foundation, Friends of Bethany, which reaches out to amputees and youth. She has written several best sellers and her story was also chronicled in a movie, “Soul Surfer.” A second movie about her is expected to be released next year.

Despite efforts to change the public’s perception of sharks, it will take a lot to get the public onboard with this attitude. Those working hard toward this goal, however, do not plan to give up their efforts.

“If only we humans could let our fears go and realize sharks are misunderstood creatures that desperately need our help,” the Operation Requiem site implores. “We believe this is possible.”

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Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a resident of Kapaa.

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