With sharks on the rebound, it's time for humans to become 'shark smart'
HALIFAX -- Feared by most and loved by some, sharks play a critical role in the ocean's ecosystem, but the various species including the great white shark found in waters off eastern Canada are often viewed much like the mythic predator featured in the movie Jaws.
Scientists say it's time to recast the narrative around the feared creatures.
Dr. Fred Whoriskey, the executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network at Dalhousie University, says sharks should be neither feared, nor revered, they should be respected.
"They've been around for hundreds of millions of years," Whoriskey said in an interview with CTV Atlantic. "Their populations have crashed due to mostly anthropogenic impacts -- things we as humans did in the ocean, notably fishing, and now they're coming back."
Whoriskey said declining numbers in led people to becoming accustomed to not having them around.
And now that they're on the rebound and living in places they've always lived, we are learning how to live with them again.
"This is changing the way we ought to be thinking about the water, and swimming in the water," Whoriskey says. "It's a little bit like when you go for a hike in a national park where you have bears and wolves. You're not terribly fearful and you still go for your hike but you're respected, and you take a few measures to try to make sure that you don't get into bear trouble or wolf trouble."
Whoriskey says the ocean environment can be daunting for humans and there's a natural fear many feel when we're in the sharks' realm.
There are very few intentional shark attacks on humans, Whoriskey said. Most of them are incited and many other cases are mistaken identity, in which the shark mistook the human for something else.
"I have seen some crazy statistics over the years, things like there are more people being killed by tiger attacks in the United States on a per year basis than are killed by shark attacks, and yet we're not calling for mass kills of tigers," he said.
Whoriskey encourages people to be what he calls "shark smart."
Sharks are nocturnal hunters, so avoid going for swims at dawn or dusk, especially in places where sharks are known to hunt seals.
"Even though that's a lovely time to be spending quality time with the seal, you are basically inviting attention on the part of a shark that would happen to be there in that same time which may not be able to tell the difference between you and the seal," Whoriskey said.
He also suggested avoiding doing a lot of crashing that would send low-frequency vibrations that send a signal to sharks that there might be an animal in distress.
"And, if you happen to be bleeding from an open wound, don't go out of the water at night where the sharks are out," he said.
Whoriskey has grown up around the ocean and has worked in it for most of his life.
"I watched it fall into a terrible and very, very deep hole, all sorts of environmental insults and oil spills," he said. Growing up, he remembers trash piling up on the beaches and he, he criticizes the overfishing of "denuding" the world's oceans.
In his work with the Ocean Tracking Network, he and his colleagues put tags on sea life and track their movements to get a better understanding of where they are, how fast they move, and other key details about their lives.
"All of that helps us to understand how they fit into our ecosystem," Whoriskey said.
Although shark sightings so close to shore are unusual, finding these top predators in Canadian waters is becoming more common.
"We're seeing is an expansion in the ranges that the animals are occupying or increased numbers," Whoriskey said. "There are a lot of juveniles that are cropping up as well. All of those are positive signs indicating population rebound."