This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I’m
And I’m Faith Lapidus. This week, we will tell about sharks
-- a fish with a public relations problem.
A picture in the newspaper shows a person standing next
to a huge shark. The body of the shark is hanging with its head down. A scale
is measuring its weight.
The lines below the picture say the shark was a very
big one. Or perhaps it was one of the biggest ever caught in the area. The
person who brought in the fish looks extremely pleased. That person won a
battle with what has been called one of nature’s fiercest creatures.
Some people, however, do not approve of catching sharks.
They do not think all sharks are terrifying enemies. They know that studies
show lightning and snakebites threaten people more than shark attacks.
Activists for sharks note that the fish are valuable in
the ocean. Sharks eat injured and diseased fish. Their hunting means that other
fish do not become too great in number. This protects other creatures and
plants in the ocean.
Environmental activists worry that some kinds of fish
are in danger of dying out. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
estimated that fishing operations kill more than one hundred million sharks
every year. Sharks are harvested for meat and cartilage, liver oil and, especially,
for their fins. Many of the animals die when people harvesting other kinds of fish
pull in sharks by accident.
George Burgess leads the International Shark Attack
File at the Florida Museum of Natural History of the University of Florida. He
says shark attacks increased during the past century for a good reason. Hundreds
of millions of people now use the world’s oceans, more than in the past.
Professor Burgess says the first ten years of the
twenty-first century are expected to register the most attacks of any ten-year
Yet the International Shark Attack File reports that the
number of shark attacks has, in fact, decreased in recent years. During this
period, there was an average of sixty-three attacks worldwide each year. That compares
with a high of seventy-nine in two thousand.
The file gives some likely reasons for the decrease. One
reason is that overfishing of sharks and related fish has reduced the size of
some shark populations.
Another is that more people are careful to stay away
from waters where sharks swim. And the file says workers responsible for
boating and beach safety may be doing a better job of warning people when
sharks are seen.
The International Shark Attack File describes shark attacks
as either provoked or unprovoked. An unprovoked attack means the person is
alive when bitten. It also means the person must not have interfered with the
Some divers interfere with sharks on purpose. They want
to get the attention of sharks, perhaps to take pictures of them. The diver may
put food in the water to get the animal to come close. Sharks do not normally
want to be with people. But their excellent sense of smell leads them to food.
Some experienced divers say they may not face danger
when near a shark. But they say the next person who comes near the shark may be
in trouble. The animal’s experience with being fed may make it connect food
Some divers, filmmakers and nature photographers enter a
shark’s territory while inside containers made of steel. Others wear heavy
metal equipment for protection. And others get near sharks wearing only normal
Close contact with sharks has its critics. Some people
say it represents invasion of the animals’ territory for no good reason. But exciting
films may increase public interest and sympathy for the animals.
Many people wanting to save sharks have formed activist
groups. For example, a group called Shark Safe helped prevent the killing of
sharks at a fishing competition in Florida earlier this month. Event organizers
had said the goal would be to catch and release sharks.
But the Shark Safe Project said the stated goal of "bringing
in the big one" would lead to killing of the biggest sharks. The big ones
are the most likely to reproduce.
The Shark Safe Project planned a demonstration against
the competition. The demonstration never took place, however. Instead, the event
organizers changed their plans. Participants were to catch the sharks as
expected. But all sharks were to be released.
The Shark-Free Marinas Initiative is a campaign aimed
at helping sharks worldwide. Under the Initiative, people could not bring a killed
shark to a participating marina. People transporting captured sharks to the
boat landing for weighing and killing would also be rejected.
The initiative cooperates with several other programs,
including the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas islands. The Institute is
an educational center that also operates a shark research program.
In late two thousand seven, a United Nations conference
reported that one kind of shark, the basking shark, is in danger of dying out. The
numbers of basking sharks have been decreasing for the past half-century. The animals
are the second largest shark, after whale sharks. They swim with their mouths
open, cleaning the water as they move. They take up and eat objects like fish
eggs and tiny sea organisms.
Scientists want to know how and where basking sharks
Recently, experts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean
were interested in a huge basking shark discovered in eastern Canada. The
remains of the eight-meter long animal were found on a rocky beach in Saint
John, New Brunswick. Experts said the cause of death is unknown.
Donald McAlpine heads the zoology collection at the New
Brunswick Museum in Saint John. He said scientists removed the head and some backbones
from the shark for examination. Mister McAlpine said pictures of the animal were
sent to scientists in Britain. The British scientists had requested the pictures
to learn if the shark was the same fish they had observed on their side of the
Sharks can be identified by their individual markings
and sometimes by healed wounds.
For years, the travels of basking sharks have been a
mystery to scientists. Basking sharks from the northeastern United States are
not seen in the winter. They seem to disappear from cool waters of the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans. Yet studies published in the journal Current Biology are
providing clues about the mystery.
The studies found that the sharks went to warmer waters
of the Atlantic during the winter. The animals did a good job of staying hidden
from sight. They swam in waters from two hundred to one thousand meters deep.
Like Americans living in cold climates, some of the
sharks traveled to Florida for the winter. Others went even further south. One
spent a month in waters near Brazil.
One of the investigators was Gregory Skomal of the
Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. He says the fish probably get to
eat more plankton in the warmer waters.
Today, a major threat to sharks comes from shark fin
soup. The popularity of the soup has increased greatly over the years. Fisheries
can earn a lot of money for even one kilogram of shark fins.
Finning, as it is called, is big business. It means
cutting the fins off a live shark. Fishermen cut off the shark’s fins and throw
the animal back into the water. The shark then bleeds to death on the bottom of
Many animal-protection groups and people worldwide have
denounced finning as cruel. Some areas have banned this activity. But it is hard
to enforce the ban in many places.
Ann Luskey is an activist for the world’s sea
environment. She lives on a boat and often dives to watch underwater life. Her three
children took part in an unusual recording project. The family hopes the music will
attract attention to the need for taking good care of the earth and its seas.
One of the recordings is a hip-hop song called “Shark
Fin Soup.” It urges people not to eat the soup because it threatens sharks.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jerilyn Watson. Brianna Blake was our
producer. I’m Faith Lapidus.
I’m Bob Doughty. Listen again next week for more news about science in Special
English on the Voice of America.