Every summer, our collective obsession with sharks fucking humans up rears its ugly head. Ever since Jaws dah-domped its way into our collective unconscious, society has gone into a mass freakout over "man-eating" sharks, which manifests in sensational reports of reports about vicious attacks, huge bite marks, and washed-up bodies in our televisions and news feeds. Recently, researchers suggested that climate change—with its ability to push people to cool off at the beach—is actually causing an increase in shark attacks in the United States, although the data can't say that definitively.
To get a better idea if this shark shit is still just media hype, we asked James Sulikowski, professor at University of New England and expert on sharks, if the ocean's top predator is really something we need to worry about.
VICE: I'll start off by asking the obvious: are sharks a real threat to humans?James Sulikowski: Sharks pose no immediate threat to human beings whatsoever. I could go on and on and on—there's tons of different statistics to point to that, but it's so relative. We see sharks as a threat because they're overreported on, not [because they're actually dangerous].
Does climate change actually affect sharks?
If you were looking across the board—there are a 100 or so shark attacks a year globally—there's almost nothing you can tie to the fluctuation in attacks. Could you say that climate change is a factor? Sure. More people going to the beach, more people in the water because it's warmer out.
But there are a lot of other things to take into account about why sharks interact with humans. Are there more bait fish? Are they moving closer to the shore? What about weather patterns? Also, it isn't really an "attack." For most of these incidents, it's a case of mistaken identification. They think you're something else, bite in, let go, and move on.
Our fascination with sharks in pop culture and society with phenomena like Shark Week has really picked up in the last decade or so. Is it fair to say that we may be focusing more on shark attacks because there's such a mythos behind them now?
Yes, that's a great point. A lot of this has to do with social media—everything is so accessible now. Once [an attack] happens, it's posted immediately, and it makes it seem like there is much more to shark attacks than is really there.
Also, you have to think, whenever you go out into the ocean and the water goes past your shoulders, it's always in the back of your mind, right? What's beneath you? You get the same feeling if you're in a lake or a pond—you get this eerie feeling that something is going to come up and get you. If you think about what movies like Jaws have done, and what our hyper awareness with social media has done, it's fair to conclude that we have developed a psychological fear of sharks.
What sort of things do you have to do to piss off a shark? I'm assuming they don't go looking for humans.
No [laughs], sharks don't go looking for humans. Humans are specifically not on their menu—they'd rather eat an assortment of other things that are easy to capture and digest. If you look at it, most of what is happening are these unintentional interactions where a shark will come up and take the person, but doesn't actually want to keep them.
When we swim, we give off the same vibrations as a struggling fish. That's going to attract sharks. There's also lots of recreational fishing going on near where shark attacks tend to happen, and that will bring sharks in because they can sense the other fish and the bait. You have a lot of things going on that can attract a shark to an area, and it just so happens that a human might have a shiny bracelet, or could be struggling in an area, and that will prompt the shark to give that person a love tap. A love tap from a hundred shark teeth ends with 100 stitches for us. It's not meant to kill.
It's interesting that you don't like to classify these as attacks. Are we mischaracterizing shark love with viciousness because of the size and severity of these "love taps"?
Exactly. Our interactions with sharks are so minimal compared to most other species. Like, when dogs attack people, how often do we hear about it? It's because when a shark bites, it's serious damage. A dog bite, we can get over that. Both are not necessarily meant to kill, however. A dog isn't likely to eat a human [it bites.] There are [many statistics] that show deaths from [other circumstances] are much more frequent than deaths from shark attacks.
Off the climate change argument, are there as many sharks as there should be? Some have argued that we actually need more shark-like predators to maintain the balance of fish in the ocean.
If you look across the world, there have been population declines, for sure. On [the East Coast], there are some that are over-fished, but the fact of the matter is that they do play a very important role in the ecosystem. When you take away that top predator, things get out of balance. You get a lot of cute and cuddly seals, which are ferocious predators and can really screw up the ecosystem.
Sharks kind of sound like the spiders of the ocean—we hate them out of a phobia, but they're actually pretty useful.
Absolutely. Really, sharks are lazy—they eat dead and dying animals so that the ecosystem can get stronger. I don't think people really realize that, they just see them as these people-killers.
What's the best way to interact with a shark that swims up beside you?Realistically, just be aware of your surroundings. Stay out of the water at dawn and dusk, don't wear a lot of shiny things, don't hang around people who are fishing. If you cut those kind of things out, you're really going to limit your interactions with sharks. If one shows up, just calmly begin to head toward shore and get out of the water. Almost every time, nothing's going to happen. If you get bit by a shark, my advice to you is go buy a lottery ticket, because your chances are pretty much equal.
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