What about Sharks?!
As a rule when you mention to people that you're a Dive Instructor in Hong Kong more often than not people's first response is: "But what about sharks?"
So what is it about sharks that so fascinates, scares, and exhilarates human beings about sharks exactly? For me personally the shark is the king of the sea, number one, and a 400 million-year living dinosaur. For another people the mere mention of the S word and the Jaws theme tune immediately kicks in.
Peter Benchley author of Jaws (who incidentally is now an ardent shark environmentalist) wrote his best-selling novel in 1974. His portrayal and the subsequent Steven Spielberg movie "Jaws" are often blamed for the shark's fearsome reputation as a mindless, relentless, consummate predator. Add to his fictionalized shark accounts in the popular press and on TV and it's easy to see why sharks get a bad rap.
Ask most people with a marine background however and they'll usually express disgust at the way we are systematically endangering a living dinosaur. It's a bit like 20 years ago with the African elephant when these animals were slaughtered for their tusks and the carcass. Except with the shark it is the fin that is removed and the live body is then thrown back overboard to a horrible death.
So what is Myth and what is fact exactly?
Sharks are natural man-eaters.
MYTH-There is no shark that naturally feeds on man, sharks' natural prey range from plankton through carrion to seals and marine mammals, but NOT man. It is only in the last 100 years that man has extensively gone in the water for pleasure and the past 1000 that he has extensively gone to sea, not long enough for frequent enough to become prey except during cases of mistaken identity or opportunistic feeding.
Shark attacks are frequent.
MYTH-Bees, wasps, snakes and even dogs are responsible for far more fatalities each year. In the United States the annual risk of death from lightning is 30 times greater than that from shark attack. Far more people are injured and killed on land while driving to and from the beach than by sharks in the water.
Most sharks are a danger.
MYTH-Of the more then 350-shark species, about 80% are unable to hurt people or rarely encounter people.
Most sharks are IN danger.
TRUE-Sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays, are in serious worldwide decline as a result of over-fishing and habitat destruction, with species facing endangered of threatened species status.
Which brings us on to "Sharks Fin Soup"
Be honest, can any body actually say that sharks fin soup was the most delicious thing they've ever tasted?
Shark fin is not a staple food item in the traditional Chinese diet. It is a luxury too expensive to be afforded by most ordinary families and is usually associated with social gatherings, like family gatherings, weddings, banquets and business meetings, rather than being a basic need. And lets face it, if Park N Shop started selling the stuff in tins at ten dollars can rather than it being accepted as a status symbol things could be different.
When social and cultural habits are the cause of demand for a wildlife product, education and public awareness are important factors in reducing the impact on wild resources. And as with most of the Hong Kong Government so called 'environmental policies' people can draw their own conclusions.
Due to different cultural backgrounds, educational campaigns must be tailored to the particular culture and life of the local people so that the messages could be delivered effectively. Any action or campaign without cooperation and understanding of local people (or Government) will, very likely, fail.
So is there anything we can do? The PADI project AWARE (www.padi.com) program is a global educational and lobbying group, which is well worth supporting, as are local environmental groups.
On a more personal level the next time you are offered Sharks fin soup at a banquet, saying 'no, thank you' is the right thing to do.
THIS IS AN ARTICLE WE WROTE FOR DISTRICT LINK MAGAZINE IN JULY 2003.