COCOA BEACH – It starts with that ominous music by John Williams, as the woman swimming across the waters off the Massachusetts coast never senses what’s zeroing in on her, ready to attack … a classic cinematic opening that helped “Jaws” terrify audiences around the world.
That movie and others portraying sharks as deadly to swimmers may be good box office entertainment, but they also promote some very bad stereotypes about sharks, says Hannah Medd-Rutzen, who thinks people – swimmers and boaters included – should switch their motto from “Sharks are Scary” to “Sharks Need Friends.”
“When you say the word ‘shark,’ people flip out, but obviously not all sharks are dangerous to people,” said Medd-Rutzen. “When you talk about sharks, it brings to mind this media craze,” and she cited “Jaws” and other sharks-that-kill movies as prime examples.
“It’s fueled by these movies where the shark is actively hunting people, which is incredibly false,” she said.
Medd-Rutzen is a marine biologist with Shark Savers, a group founded in 2007 with a simple mission: to protect sharks that, Medd-Rutzen insists, are in far greater danger from humans than they ever will be to the people they get portrayed as preying upon.
Shark Savers is focused on promoting education about what people can do to help sharks, and raising awareness of the positive benefits of having them in the ocean.
Medd-Rutzen noted that sharks act as an “apex predator,” or the lead actor in the story of any natural habitat. The apex predator governs the balance of all species below it by keeping other species of fish in check, and ensuring that certain species don’t grow uncontrollably. The loss of an apex predator, she said, could leave behind havoc in an ecosystem that used to depend on it.
“Sharks keep the oceans healthy, and we really do need the oceans healthy,” she said. “Unfortunately, lots of shark populations around the world are in serious trouble.”
That’s because sharks have what hunters – and, as it turns out, consumers – are looking for. Sharks make up a good source of the meat for expensive restaurants in Asian countries, she added.
Finning, or selling sharks’ fins, is a $500 million black market industry, Medd-Rutzen noted.
“Shark fins are extremely expensive,” she said. “It’s another form of caviar. Why are we killing 100 million sharks a year? Basically for a bowl of soup. It’s basically a status system, to provide you with a bowl of Shark Fin Soup, which is mostly sold in Asia.”
Hunters don’t even have to be targeting sharks to hurt the species, she noted.
“Fishermen say, ‘I’ll get a swordfish permit,’ so they go out fishing and catch one swordfish – and 40 sharks,” she said. “Sharks take a long time to mature. If it takes you until (age) 14 to get pregnant, you may or may not be able to replace yourself in the population.”
Shark Savers is fighting back, armed with education as their main tool. They’ve launched a “Just Say No To Shark Fin Soup” campaign in China and other Asian nations, and Medd-Rutzen said there are ways that Floridians can help sharks as well.
“Don’t be a shark consumer,” she said, and that includes buying anything containing shark fins, meat, or teeth, including jewelry and other souvenirs.
“Speak up for sharks,” she noted, by, among other things, urging your state lawmakers to pass legislation that protects the species in state waters.
“Make smart seafood choices,” she said, and learn more by getting Shark Savers’ Seafood Watch Card. The organization’s web site is http://www.sharksavers.org/.
“During the time it took me to speed through this presentation,” Medd-Rutzen said, “6,000 sharks were killed.” Her presentation lasted about 45 minutes.
And what about if swimmers find themselves in a “Jaws”-like situation — if you’re deep sea diving and come face to face with a shark? Medd-Rutzen said her best advice, interestingly enough, is to act casually.
“If you don’t want to be prey, don’t act like prey,” she said. “Keep eye contact, and remain calm and keep low on the reef – become a part of the reef. And just don’t look edible, basically.”
More importantly, she said, it’s better to try and confuse a shark than antagonize one.
“The advice they used to give was if they attack, hit them on the nose,” she said. “But think about it – if you miss, your hand goes straight into their mouth.”
A better option: blow bubbles in their direction.
“If it’s in an area where they’re very used to divers, they may be used to bubbles,” she said. “But it’s worth trying, because blowing bubbles is not something they normally see.”
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