Sympathy for the Devil

The White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is one of the most feared and least understood creatures in the sea. It has been nearly two decades since JAWS exploded on our collective cinematic consciousness, making us keenly aware that it was the Great White above all other sharks we had cause to fear. For all the media hype and public notoriety the Great White receives, we know almost nothing about White Sharks as living animals. We don't know where they go or why, we don't know when or where they breed, we don't know how big they get or how long they live, and we don't know how many of them there are.

We do know that the White Shark is one of the sea's paramount predators, equipped to catch and feed upon virtually anything that swims. From gut contents of dead specimens, we know that seals, sea lions, dolphins, other sharks, rays, bony fishes, and marine invertebrates are all grist to the White Shark's mill. From capture records, we know that although they may be found in any part of the world ocean, they are most commonly sighted in cool temperate waters. We know that like other sharks, they employ internal fertilization and seem to grow only a few centimetres per year. We know that White Sharks mature somewhere in their teens (approximately 14 years of age for females; no data are available for males) and produce only seven to eleven pups per litter, probably after a long gestation period. And we know White Sharks are nowhere common and that there seems to be fewer of them around than there used to be. But the White Shark will probably always be best known for its occasional attacks on humans.

South Australian diver Rodney Fox has made a career out of an accident. He almost lost his life to a White Shark during a spearfishing competition off Adelaide in 1963. During the 30 years since he was bitten, Fox has organized scores of expeditions enabling divers and scientists to film, observe, and study the White Shark off South Australia. It is probably safe to say that Fox has had more experience with White Sharks in their natural environment than anyone else. Over the past three decades, Fox has perfected his technique for attracting White Sharks to his diving cages and has kept records on where White Sharks could be found at different times of the year. He is certain that the reason it is increasingly difficult to bait in White Sharks off South Australia is that the population has been greatly reduced by sport and commercial fishermen. Fox is convinced that there may be only 50 to 100 White Sharks left in all of South Australia's coastal waters. He now campaigns for the survival of the species which so nearly ended his life. White shark populations off South Africa and the United States also seem to be in decline.

Wouldn't a reduction in the number of White Sharks make the ocean safer? Not necessarily. The ocean itself is far more dangerous than any shark . Drowning is hundreds of times more likely than shark bite and millions of times more likely than the risk of being killed by a shark. White sharks are dangerous to humans, but not nearly as dangerous as we are to them. It is true that once in a great while White Sharks bite people and that victims occasionally die from these injuries. However, based on a dispassionate weighing of numbers, White Sharks have more to fear of us than we have of them. Off California, for example, 10 to 20 White Sharks are killed per year for human sport or as a bycatch of fisheries versus 0.13 humans per year killed in California by White Sharks. No one knows how many White Sharks are present in the waters off California, but it is probably safe to say that there are far fewer White Sharks than the herd of swimmers, divers, surfers, sea kayakers, and others at risk of shark attack. Thus, White Sharks are sustaining a much higher per capita loss from 'human attack' than people are from them. Even the mighty White Shark is no match for a human in a boat armed with hooks, nets, harpoons, and firearms.

Since the Great White is widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of sharkdom, catching and killing one has come to represent a great macho triumph. Regardless of its enormous size and reputation, the White Shark deserves a better fate than to have its jaws hung over anglers' mantels or its teeth sold as jewelry. White sharks have always been relatively rare, and they may well now be endangered. Unfortunately, sharks do not have benefit of the sugar-coated mythos that protects dolphins and other 'cute' creatures. But we live in a time of enlightened ecological awareness, some promising steps are being taken.

White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
 David Fleetham
After centuries of calumny, the White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is finally becoming appreciated as wildlife, and is well on the way to being afforded the same kind of protection that lions and tigers enjoy. Although regional protective measures are in place, there is - as yet - no international treaty to dissuade the clandestine and species-threatening trade in White Shark parts. Until such a mechanism is in place, one of the sea's paramount predators remains at risk.

Photo David Fleetham; used with the gracious permission of the photographer.

On 11 April 1991, the South African Minister of Environment Affairs announced regulations for the protection of the White Shark in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of South Africa. The announcement was made at the South African Museum in Cape Town, with scientists and representatives from national and international news media in attendance. The protective legislation makes it illegal to sell or offer for sale any White Shark or part or product, and to catch or kill any White Shark except on the authority of a scientific collector's permit issued by Director-General of Environment Affairs. The landing of any White Sharks caught incidentally is permitted, but such sharks must be surrendered to a fishery control officer, who will in turn make it available to a recognized research institution. These measures will be reviewed on an on-going basis as the results of research on the population biology of the White Shark become available. South Africa is the first country in the world to pass protective legislation for the White Shark. But it would not be the last.

On 11 October 1993 California Assembly Bill 522 was signed into law by Governor Pete Wilson, effective 1 January 1994. AB 522 is a measure that prohibits the taking of White Sharks for commercial or recreational purposes throughout California State waters. This would also prohibit the landing into California ports of White Sharks caught outside state waters. The only takings allowed are incidental catches (very minimal) in gill net fisheries or those sharks taken under a scientific collector's permit for research or educational purposes. The original sponsor of the bill is the Center for Marine Conservation in San Francisco. Point Reyes Bird Observatory and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations are co-sponsors. As the bill made its way through both the Assembly and the Senate, numerous and diverse organizations signed on as supporters. The list of supporters is diverse, including Friends of the Sea Otter, Defenders of Wildlife, Sportfishing Association of California, Surfriders Foundation, California Council of Diving Clubs, and various shark-oriented groups. Historically, many of these organizations oppose each other on marine resource issues, so the co-operation in support of AB 522 seems a very encouraging turn of events.

There is currently interest in similar legislation in Australia, and there is a motivation being prepared in the United Kingdom through the auspices of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society to regulate the international trade in White Shark jaws, teeth, and other parts under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It is ironic that the White Shark has been uncontested as one of the ocean's super-predators for some four to eight million years yet now needs our help to survive. With research, increased public awareness, and prudent legislation, the Great White may survive to swim into the 21st Century. It is easy to work up sympathy for moist-eyed seal pups and gently creaking sequoias, however, it is encouraging that our conservation ethic has now extended to include such former 'unlovables' as White Sharks.

White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
 Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch
With its large, dark eyes and sharply contrasting dorsal and ventral pigmentation, the White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is among the most photogenic of all  sharks.  As more and more people come to appreciate this species' beauty and intrinsic value as wildlife, its chances for continued survival improve dramatically. 

Photo Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch; used with the gracious permission of the photographer, who asks that you support the Shark Trust.

So why should we care? There are no easy answers to this question. One could echo pop-ecology and refer to the importance of such a superpredator in maintaining the health and vigor of the ecosystems of which they are an integral part. But we lack conclusive data to support such a position. Or one could weave all manner of marvelous philosophical arguments about their venerable lineage or basic right to live. But in a pragmatic world, such arguments are only so much 'verbal popcorn' - pleasant sounds with very little substance. Entrepreneurs might point out that White Sharks are worth more alive than dead, as divers and underwater photographers will pay up to $6 000 per person to be plunked in a shark cage next to one. But most people have no desire to be close to a live White Shark. So why should humankind rally to protect the White Shark?

I have my own, admittedly romantic reasons: the White Shark is a rare breed that adds to the diversity and mystery of our world. In this day and age of frantic apathy, there is no longer room for unicorns and dragons. We need real 'monsters' like White Sharks to fill us with awe and fire our fantasies. Our world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.

Originally published in Canadian Diver Watersport, Spring 1995

UPDATE:  Since this article was written, a number of significant events in White Shark conservation have transpired.  In 1997, California State legislature SB-144 affording the White Shark complete protection in California waters replaced the temporary AB-522 and includes a clause outlawing all directed efforts to attract White Sharks by any means in State waters.  Later that same year, the National Marine Fisheries Service - as part of the Fisheries Management Plan - outlawed all directed targeting of White Sharks throughout all U.S. East Coast waters and the Gulf of Mexico.  In December 1997, Australia's Federal Environment Minister announced that the Australian Government declared the White Shark protected throughout Commonwealth waters.  In November 1999, at the instigation of the U.K.-based Shark Trust and Malta's Marine Life Care Group, the island nation of Malta declared the White Shark a protected species in its territorial waters; unfortunately, the White Shark is not afforded protection elsewhere in the Mediterranean, but we can hope that other countries sharing the Med will soon follow suit.  Despite these local successes, in April 2000, a proposal to have the White Shark listed under CITES Appendix II failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote required to pass; Australia has since listed the White Shark on Appendix III.  Despite these steps, small-scale illegal international trade in White Shark parts continues.


ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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