Is the great white shark a predator or a victim?
When Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, died last month, he had spent much of the last 20 years trying to change the image of sharks portrayed in his book and subsequent movie. Peter didn't create the demonic image of sharks reflected in ''Jaws.'' People had been doing that long before him. But he ended up feeling badly about it nonetheless, and devoted much of his life afterward to helping people appreciate the remarkable characteristics of sharks and the important role they play in the world's oceans.
In many respects Peter succeeded, and a whole new generation of young people has become mesmerized by these spectacular creatures. Unfortunately, Peter's efforts to protect sharks, along with those of many other people, have not been enough to save them.
When ''Jaws'' was released in 1975, no one would have ever imagined that just 30 years later, many of the world's shark species would be on the brink of extinction. Scientists now estimate that over the past 50 to 100 years, 90 percent or more of the world's large predator fish, including sharks, have disappeared, victims of a wholesale slaughter that has escalated over the past several decades.
And in some places, the declines have been even greater. In the Gulf of Mexico, 99 percent of oceanic white-tipped sharks, the dominant predator, are gone. In the northern Mediterranean, 15 species of large sharks have been reduced to undetectable levels. Even on the world's coral reefs, which are thought by many to be pristine environments, approximately 99 percent of reef sharks have disappeared. And the great white shark, the seemingly invincible antagonist in ''Jaws,'' is now at risk of disappearing from most of the world's oceans.
It is now estimated that as many as 60 million sharks are killed each year. Many of these are caught by fishermen targeting other species such as tuna and swordfish, and are simply thrown back into the sea either dead or dying. But an increasing number of sharks are now being sought for their fins. Approximately 80 percent of the worldwide trade in shark fins is destined for mainland China where they are primarily used for shark fin soup. Once the fins are removed, frequently from animals that are still alive, the shark is often dumped back into the ocean, mutilated and unable to swim, where it either drowns or starves to death.
There are many reasons why it is imperative that we stop this wanton slaughter, not least of which is the sheer barbarity and waste of killing an animal in such a fashion and only using a fraction of its meat. Today's shark slaughter is reminiscent of what we once did to the American bison, which were massacred by the tens of millions in the latter 1800s and driven to the very brink of extinction. These goliaths of the American landscape were often killed only for their tongues (considered a delicacy in eastern restaurants), with the remainder of their carcasses left to rot on the plains.
Just as we now understand and appreciate the role that top predators such as lions, tigers and wolves play on land, sharks occupy a critically important place in the marine food web. Like their terrestrial counterparts, sharks help regulate the numbers of other marine species, thereby keeping the entire ocean system in balance.
While overfishing threatens many of the world's big fish, sharks are in an even more precarious position. For unlike most fish, which produce young in large numbers, sharks begin reproducing at a relatively advanced age, have long gestation periods and produce few young. Consequently, once their populations have been depleted, it is particularly difficult for them to recover.
If coming generations of children are to grow up in a world where sharks inhabit the sea in healthy numbers, dramatic steps need to be taken now, or it is highly likely that within a few short decades, many of the world's remaining sharks will be gone.
Throughout the world's oceans the killing of sharks needs to be regulated and significantly reduced. The practice of taking sharks only for their fins, and dumping the rest of the animal, must be brought to an end. And for those species that are most at risk, killing them must be prohibited.
Some years before he died, Peter Benchley said to me that he didn't want to be the one to write the eulogy for the world's sharks. Peter is now gone, but it is not too late to prevent that eulogy from being written. However, for many species of sharks, there is not much time left.