OPINION: In deep water

OPINION: On DEC 14, 2013 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

Why do Australians so fear the "demon" shark, asks Tim Winton, when humans kill far higher numbers of this magnificent species than they do of us?

Australians have a peculiar attitude toward sharks. It's pathological and it runs deep. Other cultures have their wolves and bears, their lions and tigers - the carnivorous demon lurking in the shadows. Here, there's no growling menace out there in the dark. Our demon is silent and it swims.

"Why did God make sharks?"

Whenever my kids asked me this I was always tempted to answer, "To sell newspapers." Because that's how it feels sometimes. Flip through a Sunday paper this summer. Watch the telly. When it comes to sharks, fear equals money. The more lurid the pics and headlines, the better. Readers and viewers can't help themselves. Advertisers love it almost as much as editors.

A bona fide bad guy. I guess it's what you're left with when you're no longer allowed to burn witches. Because the shark is our secular substitute for the Devil.

Like most Australians, I grew up with an irrational fear and disgust for the shark. Not that I ever actually saw one. Not alive, not in the wild. Our waters were supposedly teeming with these hideous creatures, but for the millions of hours I spent surfing, spearfishing and boating, I saw none at all.

As a kid I saw a few dead specimens, but then I grew up in the 1960s when divers killed sharks for sport, when anglers "fought" tiger sharks and great whites for pleasure, for some sense of mastery, only to drag them ashore and hang them from gantries so they could be photographed in triumph beside them. I remember enormous, distended carcasses suspended from meat hooks and steel cables on jetties in Albany, on the southern coast of Western Australia.

The dead sharks often had their lengths and weights painted on their flanks as if they were machines. Their entrails spilled at our feet through their gaping jaws. And I think of it now: the hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilos of protein, the decades of living and travelling and breeding and ecological job-sharing that are bound up in the body of a single mature shark. All of this reduced to a freak show that lasted a few hours before the creature's body was carted off to the tip. These displays were like public executions, the criminal species strung up for the crowds, as if the only good shark was a dead shark and we needed to see this butchery acted out again and again for our own well-being.

No wonder I wasn't seeing live sharks as a kid. Humans had declared war on them. By the time I finally caught sight of a live specimen in the wild, some time in my 30s, there were more sharks in our collective minds than there were left in the water. Despite the collective hysteria, that's undoubtedly the case.

Picture this. I'm 13, standing on a jetty looking down onto a flashing mass of bronze whalers and other sharks. And men are blasting holes in them, shooting them at close range from boats. This is Albany, 1973. The sharks are gathered around the gore-mired flensing deck of Australia's last whaling station. It's a local treat for tourists, having access to such a spectacle.

There are half a dozen dead sperm whales floating a few metres away. The water is wild with blood. Not just from the writhing sharks, but because someone just beneath me is grinding the head off a whale with a steam-powered saw. Believe me, it's an untidy business to witness. A head the size of a shipping container unseated from the biggest body you've ever seen in your life. It's hard to believe what I'm seeing. It seems a bit wasteful - disgusting, actually - to be butchering such immense creatures for little more than fertiliser and cosmetics. But blokes shooting sharks? That doesn't bother me a bit. I am, after all, a boy of my time and place.

Of course, I haven't been that boy for a long time. I haven't moved far in all those years, but I do live in a different time and another place entirely.

My country and its citizens have changed. In my own lifetime, Australians have become very conscious of animal welfare and nature conservation. Most people hate to see animals mistreated. Whether it's a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us. A kangaroo cull or footage from an overseas abattoir will cause outrage bordering at times on social derangement.

But of all creatures subject to routine mistreatment and wanton destruction, the shark remains, for the most part, beyond the range of our tender feelings. We reserve special sympathy, of course, for endangered species. Most of us could not countenance the unnecessary killing of an elephant or a rhino, let alone those scarier creatures, the leopard or the cheetah. After all, these are all rare, proud, noble beasts.

But the endangered shark? By and large, nobody cares.

Yet the shark was here before any of those other "iconic" beasts. It embodies the deepest experience of prehistory, and it still swims in the present. But somehow it's relegated to criminal status. Bees kill many more Australians than sharks every year, but is there a war on bees? Of course not. And yet we passively condone an undeclared war on sharks.

The Devil is supposed to get all the good lines, but the shark is mute. It is a creature routinely vilified, kept culturally beyond the pale, and this sort of willed ignorance allows us - trains us, really - to completely withhold empathy. As a result, we tolerate or even participate in acts of cruelty that would be unimaginable were they to involve any other species. In short, the removal of sharks from humane consideration gives humankind licence to do the unspeakable.

And the evidence suggests that we'll let ourselves do anything to the shark. This is why the barbaric trade in shark fin continues to prosper, why most of the big pelagic sharks have disappeared globally without an outcry, why boys who maim and torture sharks beneath jetties in several Australian states are unlikely to be reprimanded, let alone convicted of any offence, or why right-thinking folks in Sydney and Melbourne are content to buy shark meat under the false and misleading market label of "flake" even as the fishery declines.

Of all the fisheries resources so close to worldwide collapse, the shark fishery is the one least likely to stir our collective conscience. Because, essentially, the shark doesn't matter - that's the stubborn and perennial subtext. The demonisation of sharks has blinded us - not just to our own savagery, but also to our casual hypocrisy.

Sharks are not machines. They are not invincible. They are not cruel - certainly not as cruel as a 14-year-old with a Twitter account, or a backroom politician with a grudge. Unlike humans, sharks are not capable of moral evil. In short, they are not at all what we thought they were. For one thing, we need to remind ourselves: there is no monolithic shark. With almost 400 species, there are as many ways to be a shark as there are to be a human.

You only need to meet a few individual animals to understand that sharks are complex and many-faceted, variable in behaviour as much as form. Some are sociable, even playful. At times they seem to like human interaction. I love dolphins as much as anybody else but, believe me, I've had more fun with sharks: lemon sharks, tawny nurses, whale sharks, even the ADHD kids of the surf zone, the bronze whalers.

Happily, most of us who spend a lot of time in the water have moved on from the ugly and ignorant shark prejudices we grew up with. There's no question that people's thinking has evolved. Even in the rare instance when a diver or a surfer gets bumped, bitten or even killed, it's now very uncommon to hear the victim or the survivor or a bereaved relative speak in terms of vengeance or outrage. Anger and hatred are rare. The tone of these harrowed folks is often respectful, even philosophical.

The ugliest utterances seem to come from those at distance, often citizens who rarely get their hair wet, whose hatred is implacable. Usually blokes, I'm sorry to say. Men, of course, are far more likely to die on the toilet than from a shark encounter, but some blokes still want to see every last shark dead before their last straining moment.

Public hysteria about sharks often seems impervious to reason. The worst year for fatal shark attacks in Australia in living memory was 2011. Four people lost their lives. These were violent deaths, terrible events. With the help of news media, a kind of fever gripped the public imagination, and as a result lots of Australians and foreign tourists were too terrified to swim in the sea.

That same year we suffered the lowest road toll since World War II - only 1292 Australians were killed. Some of them died slowly, many were disarticulated. Their blood stained the lawns and streets of many safe neighbourhoods. But this was a good year. There was no panic. Nobody stayed off the roads. To the contrary, our road usage went up. This most common form of violent death simply doesn't frighten us. The very real likelihood of being mangled in a car is something we've domesticated. You could say it's a marvel of human psychology.

The fact is, sharks have so much more to fear from us than we do from them. Worldwide, millions of people are in the water every day of every year - and even with the recent spate of incidents in Australia, most of them in my home waters, the number of attacks is but a handful. But how many sharks are killed annually? Almost a hundred million. That's 270,000 sharks killed just today.

Many of these have their fins amputated. Their trunks are discarded, so the shark drowns slowly or dies from shock. A third of all open ocean sharks are threatened species. Many are keystone species. So when they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem goes haywire. Habitats stripped of sharks begin to produce monocultures at best and plagues at worst. The current trends of shark slaughter are savage. But they're not just unsustainable; they're potentially catastrophic for our oceans.

Why are sharks so vulnerable to overfishing? Mostly because they have inner-city reproductive habits. They mature late and breed infrequently. When you decimate a population of sharks, the recovery period is so long it's barely measurable as something you'd even call recovery. They simply don't bounce back.

Our nation was at the forefront of the global change in attitudes toward the slaughter of whales and dolphins. This all began in Albany when I was a teenager in the 1970s; it unfolded in front of me, and it's had a real impact on my life and work. Cetaceans are charismatic; they have lungs and voices.

But sharks are silent. They, too, are social, but they need others to speak for them. Sharks are now more vulnerable than dolphins, they may become more threatened than whales. Their survival is bound up with our own, for a world without sharks will eventually become a world without people. Let's continue to expand our common knowledge and reform our attitude to these beautiful and misunderstood creatures while there's still time.

By Tim Winton, The Sydney Morning Herald

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