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In My Words: Taking a bite out of shark fears

If you're planning one final trip to the shore before the arrival of autumn, Associate Professor Jeffrey S. Coker has data and perspective about the "summer of the shark" that he shares in a guest column published by several regional newspapers.

The following column appeared recently in the (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Greensville (S.C.) News, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Jeffrey S. Coker

Taking a bite out of shark fears
By Jeffrey S. Coker – jcoker@elon.edu

As families gear up for the last beach excursions of the summer, many are still afraid to enter the water.  

It has already been a record year for shark attacks along parts of the Atlantic coast. News programs and social media have been abuzz with shark videos, warnings, and photos of victims, and “Shark Week” led the Discovery Channel to its highest monthly ratings ever in July. The recent tracking of large great white sharks off the coast has continued the summer-long hysterics.

Nothing quite rivals the shark in how it elicits fear. And why not? They are spectacular predators in a medium in which humans are especially weak and vulnerable.  They look like giant eating machines. Movies like “Jaws” come to mind almost instantly (or “Sharknado,” for those who appreciate a good bad movie).

Even though sharks scare the hell out of us, and can indeed kill people, the fact is that our fear is mostly irrational. Sharks attack less than 100 people per year globally, killing fewer than 10, while people annually kill more than 100 million sharks. 

In other words, humans kill 10 million sharks for every one person that sharks kill! That’s an astounding differential. We’re lucky they don’t have a sense of vengeance or a decent lawyer. 

The list of things that kill more humans than sharks is as long as the tax code. You are more likely to die from falling coconuts, lightning, scalding by hot water, insect stings, or falling off a ladder.  Even man’s supposed best friend, the dog, is twice as likely to kill you than a shark. I still don’t recommend sharks as pets because of the damage they do to couches and so forth, but my point is that unless you’re searching out sharks and then poking them with things, they aren’t going to kill you. 

The public hysteria about sharks is due to human psychology, not shark activity. There is an important message to learn here: our brains greatly exaggerate the threat that wild animals pose to us. Our Neolithic hardwiring helped keep us alive tens of thousands of years ago, but now it serves mostly to make us irrational in the context of the modern world. 

This can really get in the way of efforts to conserve large animals, especially predators. We can coexist with sharks as least as well as we can with coconuts, lightning, water, insects, and ladders.

But I get it, I get it. Sharks are powerful, have lots of teeth, and make a big bloody mess on the rare occasion they attack, and statistics don’t matter to the person on the shark’s menu. Truth be told, I am afraid of them, too, insofar as I don’t typically want them swimming around me. Typically.

During a recent vacation, I went scuba diving at a shipwreck off the North Carolina coast that was covered in 8- to 10-foot sharks.  Droves of sand tigers were the primary occupants. They are surprisingly safe to be around, rarely attacking humans and never being officially recorded as killing anyone (a little hard to believe when you see one). 

On the other hand, they create an interesting psychological dilemma for even a knowledgeable diver because they look mean, even for a shark. They have this constant toothy growl on their face, sort of like that angry dog from your childhood that tried to bite everyone. 

We visited them without incident, and it was spectacular. Two or three sharks were within 20 feet of us for much of the time.

Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years, making them some of Earth’s oldest and most resilient creatures. I hope that we can find the courage to keep them around for millions more, along with the other big predators. They are magnificent animals and even decent hosts. If nothing else, they make life on Earth more interesting. 

On my next vacation, though, I plan to do something more dangerous than dive with sharks, like hang out under coconut trees. 

Jeffrey S. Coker is an associate professor of biology and director of the core curriculum at Elon University, and author of "Reinventing Life: A Guide to Our Evolutionary Future."

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

 

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
8/11/2015 10:50 AM