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Shark phobias make irrational common sense


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POSTED: Monday, July 27, 2009

Last week, my husband and I discussed the controversy in Hawaii over shark feeding, and when the subject turned to shark phobia, we disagreed.

Craig thinks people who stay out of the ocean because they're afraid of sharks are being irrational. Although Craig has little fear of sharks personally, that's not where his opinion comes from. It's from 25 years of working in Hawaii's emergency rooms.

Compared with drowning, surf injuries and traffic accidents while driving to and from the beach, shark attacks, he says, don't even make a blip on the chart of marine deaths and injuries.

So what? I say. Shark fear is natural selection at work. Cave people who saw a shark and got out of the water lived to pass us their survival genes. Some of us might be able to control this innate fear by learning which species are threats, but some can't. People who stay out of the water because of shark fear shouldn't feel bad about it. It's normal.

Craig's and my arguments are as ancient as our ancestors, and facts rarely persuade one side to cross over to the other. Still, a book I recently found at the Waikiki Aquarium gift shop called “;The Shark Watcher's Handbook, A Guide to Sharks and Where to See Them,”; by Mark Carwardine and Ken Patterson, contains some statistics worth sharing.

» According to the New York City Health Department, for every person bitten by a shark worldwide, 25 are bitten by New Yorkers.

» A study on an Australian beach notorious for sharks showed that one swimmer out of every 30 million was bitten by a shark.

» More people die in skiing accidents in the Alps each year than are attacked by sharks worldwide.

» Of the 536 unprovoked shark attacks in the world in the 1990s, 186 were in Florida.

» Six times more people in Florida are struck by lightning each year than are bitten by sharks.

Even though thunderstorms are far more of a public health hazard than sharks, Florida became the first state to prohibit shark feeding. Later that year, 2002, Hawaii became the second. Then in 2006 the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council voted to ban shark feeding in federal waters surrounding the U.S. Pacific Islands.

The Florida law was hailed as a victory by environmental groups but denounced by professional dive associations, such as PADI. One dive magazine editorial described the ban as “;a classic example of the triumph of fear over reason.”;

Now divers go to other places to see sharks. At one site in the Bahamas, sharks of several species come to a regular offering of what's called a “;chumcicle.”; Dive operators freeze fish parts onto a big stick, anchor it with a line at the bottom and hang it from a float at the top. The result is a midwater fishy Popsicle that sharks eat while divers watch.

Other chumming takes place off South Australia and South Africa where great whites mill around divers in cages.

Human fear of predators causes sharks to get terrible, unfair press. One shark biting one person makes worldwide news, but thousands of people killing millions of sharks gets little notice.

Disagreeing about shark feeding is one thing; slaughtering them is another. As vital components of healthy marine ecosystems, sharks deserve to live and thrive in their native habitats. Surely we can agree on that.

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Susan Scott can be reached at www.susanscott.net.