Opinion Save Our Sharks

Planet Shark: Predator or Prey? - Tim Winton

by Tim Winton July 11, 2018

AMCS Patron Tim Win addresses the crowd at the opening of ‘Planet Shark: Predator or Prey’ at the National Maritime Museum, Sydney, 7 December, 2010

Australians have a peculiar attitude toward sharks. It’s a pathological thing, and it runs deep. Other cultures have their wolves and bears, their lions and tigers – the carnivore lurking in the shadows, a demon. Here in Australia there’s no growling menace out there in the dark. Our demon is silent and it’s offshore.

Why did God make sharks? To sell newspapers. That’s the pathology in a nutshell.  Watch the telly. When it comes to sharks, fear equals money. I guess it’s what you have when you’re not allowed to burn witches. The shark is our substitute for the Devil.

Like most Australians, I grew up with this irrational fear and disgust for the shark. Not that I ever saw one. Not alive, not in the wild. Our waters were supposedly teeming with these hideous creatures, but for the millions of hours I spent surfing, spearfishing, and boating, I saw none at all.

Well, a few dead ones, but then I grew up in the sixties when divers killed sharks for sport, when anglers sought out tigers and great whites for fun. Apparently it was all about size. The shark as appendage. So-called sportfishers killed them, dragged them ashore and hung them from gantries – these enormous carcases suspended from meathooks and steel cables. They often had their length and weight painted on their flanks as if they were machines. They were so heavy their entrails spilled onto the jetties through their gaping mouths. Think of it now: the hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilos of protein, and the decades of living and travelling and breeding and ecological job-sharing that are bound up in the body of a single shark. All of this reduced to a freak show that lasted a few hours before it was carted off to the tip. We sure do love our sports! These displays were like public executions, the criminal species strung up again and again because the only good shark was a dead shark. No wonder I wasn’t seeing live sharks as a kid. Humans had declared war on them. All bets were off.  

By the time I finally caught sight of a live specimen in the wild, there were probably more sharks in our collective minds than there were left in the water. And I think it’s still true.

Picture this. I’m thirteen, standing on a jetty looking down onto a flashing mass of flashing bronze whalers and bull sharks. And men are blasting holes in them, shooting them at close range from boats.  This is Albany, 1973. The sharks were gathered around the flensing deck of Australia’s last whaling station. It was a kind of tourist spectacle to go and watch. There were half a dozen dead whales floating across from where I stood. The water was wild with blood. Not because of the sharks, but because someone a few yards away was sawing the head off a sperm whale. Believe me, it’s an untidy business. Now even back in ‘73 it seemed wasteful and disgusting to this thirteen year old that we were grinding up whales for fertiliser and cosmetics. But blokes shooting sharks? Didn’t bother me at all. To that extent I was still very much a boy of my time.

And this is the peculiar thing. In my own lifetime Australians have become very conscious of animal welfare and conservation. But the shark remains the exception. Most of us would be outraged at the destruction of any endangered species – a rhino, or a lion or a tiger. These are proud, noble beasts, but the endangered shark?  Who cares? The shark was here before any of them, it embodies the deepest experience of prehistory, and it still swims in the present, and yet somehow it’s relegated to criminal status. Bees kill many more Australians than sharks do, but is there a war on bees?

The Devil’s supposed to get all the good lines, but the shark is mute. The creature is vilified – and this is the real crime. It allows humans to completely withhold empathy, to engage in acts of cruelty that’d be unimaginable, were they to involve any other species.  In short, the vilification of sharks gives us license to do the unspeakable. For the evidence suggests that we’ll let ourselves do anything to the shark. This is why the barbaric trade in shark fin trade continues to prosper, why 89% of scalloped hammerheads in WA waters are gone. Perhaps it’s why most of the big pelagic sharks have disappeared globally without an outcry, or why folks in Sydney and Melbourne are content to buy shark-meat under the false and misleading market-label of ‘flake’. The cosy lies we tell ourselves. Of all the fisheries resources so close to worldwide collapse, the shark fishery is the one least likely to stir our collective conscience. Because, essentially, the shark doesn’t matter – that’s the subtext. The demonization of sharks has blinded us to our own savagery and hypocrisy.   

Sharks are not machines. They are not invincible. They are not cruel; certainly not as cruel as a fourteen year old with a Facebook account or a politician with a grudge. Unlike humans, they are not capable of evil. In short, they are not at all what we thought they were. And there is no monolithic shark. With almost 400 species, there are as many ways to be a shark as there are to be a human.

You only need to meet a few individual animals to understand that sharks are complex and many-faceted, variable in behaviour as much as form. Some are sociable, even playful.  At times they seem to like human interaction. I love dolphins but I’ve had more fun with sharks. True story.

Happily, most of us who spend a lot of time in the water have moved on from the ugly and ignorant shark prejudices we grew up with. There’s no question that people’s thinking has evolved. Even in the rare instance when a diver or a surfer gets bumped or bitten or even killed, it’s now very uncommon to hear the victim or survivor or bereaved relative speak in terms of vengeance or outrage. The tone is often respectful, even philosophical.  And this is worth noting. The ugliest utterances come from those at distance, from people uninvolved whose hatred is implacable, impervious to reason. Usually blokes, I’m sorry to say. Men, of course, are far more likely to die on the toilet than from a shark encounter, but some blokes still want to see every last shark dead before they themselves reach that… final, fatal straining moment upon the throne of glory.

Sharks have so much more to fear from us than we do from them. Worldwide, millions of folks are in the water every day of every year – and the number of attacks is but a handful. How many sharks are killed annually? A hundred million. That’s 270,000 sharks killed just today. Many of these have their fins amputated and the trunks are returned to the water so the shark drowns slowly or dies from shock. A third of all open-ocean sharks are threatened species. Many are keystone species. So when they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem goes haywire. The current trends are not just unsustainable; they’re potentially catastrophic for the oceans.

Why are sharks so vulnerable to overfishing? Apart from our total lack of empathy?  Well, mostly because they have inner-city reproductive habits. They mature late and breed infrequently. When you decimate a population of sharks, the recovery period is so long it’s barely measurable as something you’d even call recovery. They simply don’t bounce back.

Our nation was at forefront of the global change in attitudes toward the slaughter of whales and dolphins.  This all began in Albany when I was a teenager in the seventies; it unfolded in front of me, and it’s had a real impact on my life and work. Cetaceans are charismatic; they have lungs and voices. But sharks are silent. They, too, are social, but they need others to speak for them. Sharks are now more vulnerable than whales, more vulnerable than dolphins. Their future is bound up with our own, for a world without sharks will eventually become a world without people. So it’s enormously heartening to see an exhibition like this addressing the status of the shark and its place in our mind and our culture. I congratulate the National Maritime Museum on presenting Planet Shark: predator or prey. I commend it to all comers as a learning experience and great way to blow a few pleasurable hours. My hope is that it expands our common knowledge and reforms our shared view of this beautiful and misunderstood creature while there’s still time.


© Copyright Tim Winton. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.