Predator or Prey
by Tim Winton
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 in Australia 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. 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 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. Divers often killed sharks for sport. When anglers like the legendary Alf Dean ‘fought’ tiger sharks and great whites they did it for pleasure, for some sense of mastery, then they dragged them ashore and hung them from the gantries. I remember enormous, distended carcases suspended from meathooks and steel cables on jetties on the south coast. The dead sharks often had their length and weight 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 trophy 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 wellbeing.
No wonder I wasn’t seeing live sharks as a kid. Humans had declared war on them. All bets were off. By the time I finally caught sight of a live specimen in the wild, there were probably more sharks in our collective minds than there were left in the water.
Picture this. I’m thirteen, standing on a jetty looking down onto a flashing mass of flashing bronze whalers and other sharks. Men are blasting holes in them, shooting them at close range from boats. This is Albany, 1973. The sharks were 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 fertilizer and cosmetics.
But blokes shooting sharks? That doesn’t bother me a bit. I am, after all, a boy of my time and place.
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 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 in the popular mind it’s a terrorist, an insidious threat we must arm ourselves against. Bees kill many more Australians than do sharks every year, but there is no war on bees.
The Devil is supposed to get all the good lines, but the shark is mute. It is a creature routinely vilified – and the disgust it produces in us shuts down curiosity and empathy. As a result we tolerate or even participate in acts of cruelty against it that’d be unimaginable, were they to involve any other species. In short, the removal of sharks from humane consideration gives humankind license to do the unspeakable.
The evidence suggests that we’ll let ourselves do anything to the shark. This is why the barbaric trade in shark fin trade 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 coastal communities of Australia are unlikely to be reprimanded, let alone convicted of any offence, and it’s 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 numbers decline.
Of all the fishery resources close to worldwide collapse, the shark’s 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 demonization of sharks has blinded us, not just to our own savagery, but to our own casual hypocrisy.
Sharks are not machines. They are not invincible. They are not cruel; certainly not as cruel as a fourteen-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 sharks to understand that they’re complex and many-faceted, variable in behaviour and form. Some are sociable, even playful. At times they seem to like human interaction. I love dolphins as much as anybody else, but believe it or not 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 ignorant shark prejudices we grew up with. In the rare instances when a diver or a surfer gets bumped, bitten or even killed, it’s now uncommon to hear 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 philosophical. The ugliest utterances seem to come from those at distance, citizens who rarely get their hair wet. They’re 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 when you hear what some politicians and shock jocks have to say on the matter you’re led to suspect that before that final straining moment they’d prefer to see every last shark dead.
The year 2011 was the worst for fatal shark attacks in Australia in living memory. 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 the Second World War, with only 1292 Australians killed. Some of these people died slowly, many were disarticulated. Their blood stained the lawns and streets of many safe neighbourhoods. But there was no media-fanned panic, nobody stayed off the roads – on the contrary, our road usage went up. This most common form of violent death simply doesn’t frighten us anymore. The very real likelihood of being mangled in a car is something we’ve domesticated. That’s not simply a contradiction, 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 while they’re alive; they’re returned to the water where they drown slowly or die from shock. A third of all open-ocean shark species are threatened, 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 rate of shark slaughter is savage and is not just unsustainable, but potentially catastrophic for our oceans.
Why are sharks so vulnerable to overfishing? Mostly because they have very modern reproductive habits; they mature late and breed infrequently. When you decimate a population of sharks, the recovery period is perilously long. 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 seventies; 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. Sharks, too, are social, but being silent they need others to speak for them. They are now more vulnerable than dolphins and 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. We need to expand our common knowledge and reform our attitude to these beautiful and misunderstood creatures while there’s still time.
© Copyright Tim Winton. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.