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Opinion: What nearly every human seems to be missing about shark attacks


Opinion by Holly Thomas

On Monday night, a swimmer was bitten by a shark off Rockaway Beach, in what experts said was the first confirmed shark attack in New York City waters since the 1950s. A 65-year-old woman suffered a “severe laceration” around her left thigh in the Monday attack and has been hospitalized in stable condition.

It came on the heels of five attacks off Long Island around the July 4 weekend, which echoed a similar cluster last year.

Skimmed from the safety of one’s commute, such stories conjure snapshots of malevolent heads erupting out of the water, the thrum of the “Jaws” theme, and, above all, a primal dread of the creatures lurking beneath the surf. For the unlucky few who experience shark attacks, the ordeal is undoubtedly terrifying. But for the average American, stepping outside your front door is more dangerous than a dip off Rockaway Beach.

You’re more likely to be bitten by a New Yorker than a shark (per some remarkably consistent data from the 1980s, at least) and much more likely to be killed by one. Yet every summer, stories about shark attacks top homepages.

The urgency with which we consume them — and the blockbusters that cast sharks as the villains — imply a near-constant standoff between innocent humans and the ancient monsters that roam the seas. The notion that we land dwellers aren’t necessarily entitled to enter their domain isn’t entertained. Our catastrophic impact on both the species and its habitat doesn’t make for a gratifying jump scare.

The adage — “It’s more scared of you than you are of it” — doesn’t apply to sharks, but it would if they had a better grasp of statistics. In 2022, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, there were 89 shark bites worldwide, 32 of which were considered “provoked,” meaning humans initiated contact with the sharks. The odds of a person ever being killed by a shark are less than 1 in 4 million. By contrast, humans kill about 100 million sharks every year.

Most of this slaughter occurs by way of finning. Sharks’ fins are cut off by fishermen, and the rest of the animal tossed back into the sea. Unable to feed or swim, they sink to the ocean floor and starve to death, or, in the case of those who need to move to breathe, suffocate.

Other casualties are incidental. Sharks wind up as bycatch when people hunt for tastier fish or get stuck in nets erected around beaches to keep swimmers safe. Their deaths are casual, humdrum and occur on an almost incomprehensible scale.

Unlike shark attacks on humans, which are mainly attributed to curiosity, we know exactly what we’re doing. Worse, we’re increasing the chances that we run into sharks. As climate change fuels rising global temperatures, more coastlines become attractive to swimmers. Warmer waters also drive shark populations north, where they contend with unfamiliar terrain.

“Nature has many ways to tell us the status quo is being disrupted, but it’s up to us to listen,” Monterey Bay Aquarium chief scientist Kyle Van Houtan told Oceanographic Magazine. “These sharks — by venturing into territory where they have not historically been found — are telling us how the ocean is being affected by climate change.”

Our collective deafness in the face of such an outcry is ironic, given our obsession with man-made narratives about sharks. The book by Peter Benchley, which Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece “Jaws” is based on, opens from the shark’s perspective, with the thrilling line: “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.”

As hardcore fans will know, such glimpses are by far the most engrossing bits of the story, which otherwise focuses far too heavily on the vagaries of Amity Island’s real estate market and the surprising horniness of Chief Brody’s wife. Throughout, the great white is characterized as a dogged predator obsessed with human flesh. In real life, its scrawny victims would never outshine the allure of a plump seal.

Spielberg has since apologized for the grievous impact “Jaws” had on sharks’ public image but their fate as the perennial summer bad guys was already assured. This year’s offering, “Meg 2: The Trench” follows in the footsteps of its (I’ll admit it: delightfully stupid) 2018 predecessor, “The Meg.”

The latter sees deep-sea rescue expert Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) taking on a megalodon, a gigantic prehistoric shark often likened to a 60-foot great white. After wondering at the discovery of this supposedly extinct creature, no-nonsense Taylor takes the only sensible course and re-consigns it to history.

A summer without sea swimming would be miserable, as would a summer without a bonkers shark movie. I’d never suggest that the victims of shark attacks had it coming, or that cinemagoers should feel an iota of shame. But the depiction of sharks as murderous fiends on the basis of remarkably few negative encounters is gravely hypocritical in the face of humans’ devastating effects on them — and the environment that we share. No shark has ever entered a human home. But we invite ourselves into theirs, again and again. The very least we can do is treat it with respect.

Note: This article has been updated to include details of the shark attack near Rockaway Beach and to include Steven Spielberg’s response to his framing of “Jaws.”

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